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Nick Warburton is former editor of SHP Magazine. He is currently working as a freelance journalist and as an account manager at Technical Publicity.
July 7, 2016

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Affinity: “It’s time to make health and wellbeing a priority”

emma df


Emma Donaldson-Feilder is a co-founder of occupational health psychology consultancy and research group Affinity Health at Work. She talks to Nick Warburton about a collaborative research consortium that offers practitioners resources to enhance workplace health, wellbeing and engagement.



Modern life should come with a health warning attached. Demanding employers expect us to achieve more in less time with fewer resources, and all the while overwhelming us with streams of information. Add to this, uncertainty over job security, financial concerns about personal debt and rising living costs, not to mention commitments for children and ageing parents, and perhaps it’s not surprising that many of us are anxious and tense. No wonder that mental health has ballooned as an issue.

For occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder, there has never been a greater need to create workplaces where employee health and wellbeing are seen as a priority and people are given the best possible opportunities to be healthy, well, engaged and high performing.

That is the ethos behind Affinity Health at Work, the occupational health psychology consultancy and research group, which she co-founded in 2006 with academics Dr Joanna Yarker and Dr Rachel Lewis who were then at Goldsmith’s College, University of London and are now at Kingston Business School.

“We see people management and leadership as being a core component to achieving employee health and wellbeing,” she explains. “If we want to tackle stress in the workplace, we need to look at people management. You need to change the way managers behave, how they identify stress and then resolve it as it arises. Also, we need to look at how managers manage. A lot of stress in the workplace is caused by poor employee-manager relationships.”

The problem is that managers often don’t know how to manage, she continues. Many have not been properly trained and developed to manage, and rarely are they given the support needed to give emphasis to their people management role. Instead, they tend to be judged on their targets and tasks; not on how they influence people.

In the mid-2000s, the Affinity Health at Work team received funding from HSE to undertake a research project through Goldsmith’s College, which was designed to create practical tools and guidance for organisations. Out of this evidence-based research, Affinity developed a framework of management behaviour; an interactive workshop to support manager behaviour change; and an upward feedback process to help managers understand how their behaviour is perceived by others.

“Our most recent work has been saying, ‘We know that managers are pivotal, we know what managers need to do because our behavioural framework sets out quite clearly what’s important, and we know that managers can change their behaviour. However, we also know that it’s very difficult to change behaviour and it’s even harder to transfer that into the workplace’,” she says.

“No matter how good your management development might be, if your managers go back into a workplace where the culture, the systems, the processes, the role modelling from above does not reinforce the positive people management approach, then it’s very hard for those managers to do things differently.”

As the research project has developed, Affinity Health at Work has moved from HSE funding to a much more collaborative approach – a research consortium of around 15 organisations, including IOSH, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Acas and HSE, together with a range of employer organisations, which each provide funding, practical support and involvement in the research. This ensures the outputs are fit for purpose, have maximum impact and encourage collaboration across the relevant disciplines.

“We are really keen to work in a very multi-disciplinary way. We are all occupational psychologists, but our consortium brings together people from a range of different practitioner fields, including HR, occupational health, health and safety, employee engagement and the employer-management perspective,” she explains.

“We believe that all these different functions need to work together and use their expertise in a collaborative way to achieve these positive outcomes. It’s about sharing expertise and evidence, getting good solid research evidence out there so that practitioners can use it, and feeding back into the academic loop what practitioners think and need in terms of research questions.”

This leads Emma to the research consortium’s online hub, a new free-to-access practitioner resource that brings evidence-based practice and research together in one place. Emma envisages it will be officially launched in early 2017 but is keen for organisations to user-test what is already uploaded.

“We are very privileged. Because we have members of the team that are academics, we have easy access to an extensive library of academic research. But practitioners are not able to access that research in the same way,” she says.

“While we all buy into the evidence-based approach and want to base everything we do on the findings and best possible evidence out there, for the majority of practitioners that is very hard to do.”

Emma hopes that in the long run the hub will become a one-stop shop for practitioners who want to do work in this field.

“If they wanted to revamp their stress policy, this would be their go to place and they could see what the latest evidence was around stress, the most recent research findings and what tools have come out,” she says. “We’ve got ambitions that this becomes a really useful tool for all practitioners who are working in the health and wellbeing field.”

To find out more about the hub contact [email protected]

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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7 years ago

“It’s time to make health and wellbeing a priority” I wish my employer actually believed in this, rather than headline it as a key issue then ignore the basics, such as a supply of ‘wholesome drinking water’. WHSWR 1992 regs don’t seem to apply in higher education, profit and as many ‘bums on seats’ as possible, and as many seats as they can fit, ignoring the 11 cubic meters per person, unless your a prof, is the norm…

Jack Edwards
Jack Edwards
7 years ago

Well done Nick. Old Jack here, I am now ninety one and a bit, retired but still eager to see progress with what some of us pioneers were trying to achieve away back in the nineteen sixties and earlier. We need to tackle this problem more than ever. The UK is blinded with politics at the moment, they need UNITY now to look at themselves and go for Prevention rather than cure, this is the only answer for the NHS survival and the reduction of ill health in the community.

Bill Robb
Bill Robb
7 years ago

Here we go again, blaming employers for all the health and mental problems of heir employees! I have been a consultant for 22 years working with over 45 organisations … most large and I can say that almost all managers I know are human being who care about their teams. We are in danger of turning the workplace into a nursery/social wok department. I agree that a) as a human beings we should care fr people and b) as a business person – a healthy workforce is a productive one. But we have to get the balance right. In my… Read more »

Pete Douglas
Pete Douglas
7 years ago

To add an observation… I do hope this new direction and organisation include the likes of the ‘Construction Industry’… having worked within that industry for 23+ years – this industry is driven by Deadlines to building: Flats/Houses/a Factory/a Dock/a Refinery – units built as quick and hopefully in a safe manner. As profits are chased and short-cuts are taken to get there… so stress and fatigue has a big part to play with individuals, I have seen this over the years and experience it at first hand. CIRIA did some few years ago, look at an avenue to help Managers… Read more »