Boost Employee Mental Wellbeing With CSR
Employee mental wellbeing is a growing area of focus for HR and CSR leadership alike. The two intersect through the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing framework1. This framework includes giving back as a key activity area for improving mental wellbeing.
Here, Christopher Lorenz, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Soma Analytics, speaks with Lidia Borisova, Development Director for SportInspired, to explain the value of strategically-developed CSR and volunteer programmes for employee mental wellbeing.
SportInspired is an award-winning national charity that uses sport as a platform to help deprived young people achieve their full potential by improving their physical and mental wellbeing, developing their confidence and equipping them with employability skills.
To date, SportInspired has delivered over 300 programmes in 31 communities across the UK and Ireland involving 60,000 primary school pupils, 5,000 young leaders and 15,000 business volunteers. Our programmes usually involve a corporate partner and we’ve been very lucky to work with over 30 in the past 9 years, including the likes of UBS, Deloitte, Sky and Nike.
Christopher: Lidia, welcome! I’m very pleased to have you here today. Let’s start with a question of definition – what is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?
Lidia: Thank you Christopher, I’m very pleased to be here!
CSR simply demonstrates a company’s commitment to resolving or curbing social environmental issues and there’s a spectrum of how companies apply CSR, depending on how sophisticated they are. It can cover ad-hoc volunteering of employees to well-established, structured, strategic CSR programmes that deliver long-term impact.
Christopher: I’m also very pleased to be talking about volunteering today as, in a roundabout way, it contributed to the founding of Soma Analytics. When we founded the company a few years ago in Germany, we were three German students and we met through a university scholarship programme where a key criterion was to be engaged in volunteering and community involvement. My volunteering work includes leading a group of 12-14 year olds with the Boy Scouts following a leadership training programme.
So, let’s jump right back into this important topic – how can we make the connection between CSR, volunteering, and employee wellbeing?
Five Ways to Wellbeing Framework
Lidia: Well, from our perspective, we help to develop mental wellbeing using an evidence-based framework called the Five Ways to Wellbeing, that was developed by The New Economics Foundation (NEF).
The framework has 5 components, as it says in the name:
- Being physically active
- Learning new skills
- Connecting to others
- Being mindful or taking notice
- Giving back
Image source: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
For me, giving back, which is a key part of the framework, is where the CSR and the wellbeing space overlap.
SportInspired, having a sports-based platform, is suitable for delivering all of the different components of the Five Ways to Wellbeing framework. People learn a lot of skills through sport. If you’re in a team-based sport you connect to others better, and also, by taking people out of their comfort zone, it tends to make them more mindful and present in the moment.
From our perspective, the volunteers are a key beneficiary of our programmes, as well as the deprived young people they are helping.
“Our corporate partners, have a dual CSR objective, it’s benefitting their employees, engaging them better, and then delivering on a social purpose that they have. I think this lends itself to creating more sustainable programmes longer term, and to providing an ROI, both externally and internally.”
Christopher: Is there evidence backing up the long-term benefits of the Five Ways to Wellbeing?
Lidia: Yes, it is an evidence-based framework and the long-term benefits include helping to decrease mental health problems, and also helping people to flourish. Read more here.
From our perspective, there is a threshold there about behaviour change. You have to be engaging in a certain type of activity for long enough for there to be long-term benefits to that activity and each of the five ways is a behaviour.
So the more that employees volunteer, and I think the threshold is about 6 weeks every week, then you can see a lasting behaviour change within them and that translates into mental wellbeing uptake.
Christopher: We were talking about some of the statistics and data related to employee wellbeing. For example, we know now, that in 2017, 45% of organisations have a wellbeing strategy – a 25% increase on last year.
In your experience, how do you implement a wellbeing strategy and get people engaged?
Lidia: We believe, and it’s supported by research, that the key to getting employees to participate is to engage them, to boost their engagement.
Gallup did some research that shows that employees that are engaged are 28% more likely to take part in wellbeing programmes and CSR, and in our view, volunteering is extremely effective in engaging employees2.
Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT 2011 survey found that employees, especially millennials, that frequently volunteered were almost twice as likely to be prouder, more loyal, more satisfied with their employer and their job – and our experience confirms this. The volunteers that we engage are prouder of their employer about 90% of the time, they are more connected to their colleagues 92% of the time and they have improved their skills, on average, 80% of the time3.
The key here is that, like diet and exercise, volunteering can make you healthier and happier but unlike diet and exercise it instils a sense of purpose and I think that sense of purpose is key in increasing the ROI of all programmes.
Christopher: I can already see one key takeaway here, which is that volunteering and CSR is a great route to employee engagement. And also, the act of volunteering has benefits for our mental wellbeing and even our mental health, for both employees and employers.
Can you elaborate further on the benefits for employees and individuals first?
Employees And Individuals Benefit Hugely From Volunteering and CSR
Lidia: There’s a lot of scientific evidence around the effects that volunteering has on health, both on physical and on mental health.
Employee volunteering programmes, if done right, can lead to a substantial improvement in employee wellbeing. This is supported by a UK survey of more than 3,000 adults that found 94% who volunteered in the last 12 months said that volunteering had improved their mood and self-esteem, 76% felt healthier and 78% reported lower stress levels4.
A study released in the International Journal of Psychophysiology showed that from a physical perspective, you benefit from improved performance. So, you have lower blood pressure and you recover quicker from coronary issues5.
More importantly, from a mental wellbeing perspective, employees or people who volunteer, are less stressed, less likely to be depressed and have higher self-esteem. Crucially, this impact is not just short-term, it’s long-term and can be seen later in life, and there are studies that demonstrate this.
From our perspective, we see both a qualitative and quantitative manifestation of this. From a qualitative perspective, our volunteers say that they feel fulfilled, they feel energised, they feel good. And from a quantitative perspective, we see that over 80% of volunteers experience a significant improvement in all 5 areas of their Five Ways To Wellbeing.
Christopher: That’s fantastic. I think that also makes sense from a scientific perspective, you already mentioned some of the studies out there.
I’d also like to mention that there are basically two components of the health benefits of social support. One is receiving support, and the other one is giving support.
If we just look at receiving support, there are studies and evidence with cancer patients, people who have leukaemia, people who have heart disease, that social support increases survival rates. I think that’s astounding.
Now, if we talk about giving support, and again I’d like to link it in with some of the content we deliver through our smartphone application, then happiness is a key factor. It’s an age-old question, ‘can money buy you happiness?’ The answer is, it actually can, but only if you spend money on doing things as opposed to having things. So, only if you spend on experiences and ideally experiences involving others, benefiting others and especially benefiting somebody who might be deprived.
This is called pro-social spending6. It’s similar to what SportInspired offer, however, in your case people are not spending money, they are spending their effort, their time, their dedication.
Getting Employees to Engage
Christopher: So, we know that there are these tremendous benefits to volunteering. However, we all have very busy work schedules, we are time poor. How can you engage employees effectively?
Lidia: It’s an ongoing challenge, you don’t want to stress people out more by trying to relieve their stress. So, there are a few approaches that I would suggest.
Firstly, communicate effectively the long-term benefits of volunteering, in a way that resonates with people. We’ve found that hearing it from colleagues works well. In our programmes, over 90% of people who volunteer with us are likely to recommend our programmes to their colleagues, and they’re also likely to come back year on year.
There’s an added benefit of creating a more energised office atmosphere. We have a quote from a UBS volunteer about the level of buzz volunteering creates, and the inspiration that people get from seeing the impact of sport on children, and the impact that they’ve helped to deliver.
Secondly, create a culture that supports volunteering and CSR, set-up strategic discussions and have senior leaders champion this.
We often have senior people from our corporate partners come and volunteer at programmes to set a positive example for their employees. The CFO of a large corporation delivered the street dance showcase at lunchtime once, and that clearly provided entertainment, but also demonstrated the commitment he had to their programme.
Finally, lower the threshold and allow people to engage. Make it possible for employees to spend an hour doing something good, even half a day or a full day. Our programme has these flexible ways of being involved as a volunteer. Once people see the benefits and they make it a habit, they will grow their involvement over time.
Christopher: When looking at behavioural change, especially in habit formation and long-term behaviour change, there is no silver bullet, no one thing that you can do that will change everything tremendously, it’s about taking the small steps, one step at a time, but then paying a lot of attention to maintaining those steps.
This is a key philosophy here at Soma, and it reminds me of another one of our key philosophies, “You have to find out what works for you and do what works for you, what you are motivated to do.”
When we talk about physical health it’s very natural for people who are runners, for people who are swimmers or people that go cycling. The same is also true for mental fitness. We are simply so different. Do you think this can also be applied in your context, when it comes to volunteering?
Passion For A Volunteering Activity Is Important But So Is Structure
Lidia: It’s important that volunteers feel a connection or a passion for what they’re involved in. The more meaningful the activity is for the volunteers, the higher the impact from a mental wellbeing perspective will be.
I also think it’s important to provide flexibility and structure:
“There are the people that are going to be more proactive and find their own opportunities, but then there are people who wouldn’t know where to start looking. That’s where it’s important for companies to seek an established, structured, volunteering programme.”
Then it becomes important to communicate the outcomes that you’re helping to deliver through your involvement, not just the tasks that you would be doing. So, in our case for example, it would be improving social mobility or addressing physical inactivity.
On the flip side, it’s also important to allow the people that are passionate to frame the programmes that are being delivered. With some of our longer-standing programmes we have volunteers who get involved in the organisation and the focus. We had a volunteer in Hackney who was very passionate about Muay Thai so we instated it as an annual sport. He was coaching it for 3 years and he could see the direct impact that he had on the children, and he could feel the benefit to himself as a result of that.
Christopher: If somebody were to say, “I’m not really a sports person, can I still participate in your programme?” How would you respond to that?
Lidia: One of the goals of SportInspired is to help children find a sport that they love. In our opinion, there’s a sport out there for everyone. But yes, you can definitely still participate in our programme. There are lots of different kinds of volunteering opportunities. For example, you can help us to deliver training to young leaders, the teenagers, that we use to deliver our programmes. You can also act as a mentor or even help us to direct a large festival that we deliver as part of our programme.
So, there’s a lot of opportunities, but hopefully, seeing the children engage in the sport will also help you to find a sport that you enjoy.
Return On Investment Is Threefold
Christopher: Let’s go back to return of investment, how does it ultimately benefit organisations? Even though we are talking in the context of CSR, the question still is, how does it impact the bottom line of the organisation?
Lidia: CSR managers and HR managers often have to justify the amount of money that they’re spending on these programmes and from our perspective there is a lot of data out there that demonstrates the correlation between a successful CSR and volunteer engagement programme and the bottom line.
Firstly, engaged employees are likely to stay longer in the company, so employee turnover costs are offset.
In the US, Project ROI, found that companies with engaged employees are likely to save a cost of 90% to 200% of the employee’s salary7.
“There’s also the fact that engaged employees are more motivated – and more productive. So, this addresses an issue that I know Soma also addresses – presenteeism. This has a positive effect on the bottom line.”
During the Corporate Executive Board Leadership Council webinar in July 2014, Brian Kroop spoke about a study in the US which showed that for every employee engaged in volunteering the value of the organisation increases by $2400.
Another study showed that companies that have engaged employees had 26% higher revenue per employee8.
Finally, there’s this correlation between having an engaged employee and sales growth. AON Hewitt analysis found that each incremental employees who become engaged would equate to 0.6% growth in sales. For example, a 5% improvement in engagement predicts a 3% increase in sales growth9.
As a linked aside, some of our corporate partners take the opportunity to also grow the relationships with their clients. For example, Land Securities brought Ocado and Nike on-board to help provide volunteering opportunities for them, but also to grow their relationship.
Christopher: What really strikes me, and this would be one of my key takeaways, is that like Soma, you can make a case for ROI in terms of a reduction in the costs related to employee presentism, absenteeism and turnover, however, you also list increasing revenues as a key benefit of volunteering and CSR.
How are decisions made about the type of volunteering that is needed locally? Is it local priorities or is it best just left to the individual volunteers?
Lidia: This is a struggle that companies have and from my perspective, if you empower the individual volunteers, usually that leads to them feeling more fulfilled. However, showing the impact that you have as an organisation and therefore showing the return on investment on your programme, becomes much more difficult.
Having a central structured programme, a flagship programme within the organisation for volunteering, is very important, especially when it comes to measuring and demonstrating the impact on a longer-term basis.
Still allow volunteers to do what they have passion for, but it’s really important to focus on something that you can show impact in.
Christopher: As we approach the end of our time together, I wanted to ask you, as we typically ask all guests, what your secret #StressBuster is, what do you do to relax or recharge from a stressful day?
Lidia: I try to practice what I preach, so I try to do as many of the Five Ways to Wellbeing as possible. I started doing cross fit two and a half years ago. The intensity of the workout gives me energy, not just in the moment, but also for the days after.
I also try to incorporate 10-minute meditations in my morning routine. I try to think of it as taking a shower – hygiene for your brain – and it’s showing positive results.
Christopher: I couldn’t encourage you more to continue meditating. We consistently see that physical activity is the number one thing that people do already, but if we look at the things that we want people to do more of, then definitely meditation.
So, let me quickly summarise my three key takeaways from our chat:
- This 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework (be active, take notice, keep learning and give) connects volunteering, CSR and employee wellbeing.
- The employee/individual benefits to volunteering and CSR include: increased levels of mental and physical wellbeing; decreased levels of stress; the scientific evidence behind giving and receiving social support and your figures showing that 80% of volunteers improved in each of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing.
- Organisations benefit with increases to their bottom line, a reduction in the business costs related to employee absenteeism, presentism and turnover, as well as more engaged, better performing employees.
Thank you for joining us today Lidia and to our readers too, thank you very much.
If you’re interested in implementing volunteering and CSR programmes, then you can email , or visit: http://www.sportinspired.org.
Last but not least, the work that we are doing here at Soma has been awarded a European Union grant in order to deliver the largest ever randomised controlled trial using a smartphone-based intervention to reduce workplace stress. If you’re interested in our research, or you think your organisation might benefit from taking part, please email
Lidia is responsible for helping to grow SportInspired’s partnerships and impact on a national level. She recently joined SportInspired from global communications consultancy, Edelman, where she advised clients on managing issues which may impact their reputation. Her focus is in applying her public affairs background to delivering large-scale, sustainable, social impact.
Soma Analytics hosts a series of webinars with distinguished guest experts where we look at employee wellbeing and performance from innovative angles:
– “Mindfulness at Work: On-the-spot Tools and Techniques” with Juliet Adams, July 2017
– “Creating Leadership That Outperforms: Lessons From Elite Sports Psychology” with Dr Tim Rogers, May 2017
– “The Government’s Work and Health Unit on Work, Wellbeing and Mental Health” with James Rogers and Jane Abraham, February 2017
– “What can Businesses Learn from Elite Athletes that Perform Under Pressure?” with Dr Tim Rogers, December 2016
1New Economics Foundation, “Five Ways to Well-being: New Applications”, 2011
2O’Boyle E., Gallup Business Journal, “Why Your Workplace Wellness Program Isn’t Working”, 2014
3Deloitte, “Deloitte Volunteer Impact Research: Measuring important aspects of corporate community engagement”, 2016
4Summers A., Triple Pundit, “Research Shows that Volunteering Improves the Well-being of Your Office”, 2015
5Horoszowski M., Huffington Post, “Want to Boost Workplace Wellness? Focus on Others Be Well”, 2017
6Ankin L. B., Dunn E. W., Barrington-Leigh C. P., Helliwell J., Biswas-Diener R., Kemeza I.,Nyende P., Ashton-James C.,Norton M. I., Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, “Prosocial Spending and Well-being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universe”, 2010
8Wattson Wyatt Worldwide, Communication ROI Study Report, “Capitalizing on Effective Communication; How Courage, Innovation and Discipline Drive Business Results in Challenging Times”
9AON Corporation, “Aon Hewitt Analysis Finds Managing and Improving Employee Engagement is Key To Achieving Revenue Growth and Profitability Goals”, 2013