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June 2022

Board-level and Governance Wellbeing Roles

Understanding how board-level wellbeing leads and wellbeing assurance roles are being delivered in practice.

Board-level and governance wellbeing roles

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s (NICE) guideline on Mental Wellbeing at Work (March 22) reviews how to create the right conditions for high wellbeing at work.

It describes how to promote a supportive and inclusive work environment, including training and support for managers and helping people who have or are at risk of poor mental health. 

This builds on previous guidance on Workplace health: management practices and quality standards on improving employee mental and physical health and wellbeing that recommend prioritising staff health and wellbeing at the leadership level (including board members and directors) to ensure that employee health and wellbeing is promoted in all policies and procedures.

Prioritising wellbeing at board level

The non-executive director (NED) role is primarily to give advice and enhance strategy discussions. Research suggests that non-executive directors and executive directors have different roles and interactions within board meetings. For example, executive directors are more likely to focus on tangible, practical aspects of service provision, whereas non-executive directors attend more to broader service outcomes, stakeholder relationships, clinical ethics and clinical outcomes. 

The presence of NEDs on UK company boards has increased substantially during the past three decades, and past research demonstrates that this increase has been associated with generally higher standards of governance in the UK.

As such, NEDs have the opportunity to make a real difference in their organisations, placing staff health and wellbeing at the heart of what they do, providing an assurance that:

“Wellbeing is about much more than health. It describes our perception of the quality of our lives in their entirety as influenced by a range of physical, emotional and psychological factors. Work-life is a key element of good wellbeing for most people.”

Quote from Guidance for introducing the role in healthcare organisations (NHS).

NEDs are in an ideal position to support, influence and seek assurance from senior leaders, creating a culture of wellbeing where the organisation cares for its people, who care for others.

The role provides a lens on staff wellbeing in organisations, and an opportunity to question decisions which might impact on staff wellbeing, both positively and negatively, for example:

  • Challenge behaviours which are likely to be detrimental for staff wellbeing;
  • Challenge the Board to account for its decisions and their impact on the health and wellbeing of staff;
  • Remind the board to consider any unintended consequences of organisational actions and review them with a view to mitigating negative wellbeing impacts and maximising wellbeing enhancing opportunities;
  • Ensure sufficient information is being provided to the Board, so it can benchmark performance and impact; and
  • Set organisational expectations and monitor performance of job quality and staff wellbeing.

What did we do?

Literature review

We scanned the literature to get a sense of how a non-executive director Wellbeing Lead roles in organisations might have an impact on the wellbeing of staff. Some key insights from this review included: 

  • It is widely agreed that the role of management and leadership is instrumental to improving employee wellbeing, with a proposed approach beginning with senior leadership developing an appreciation of the business case for wellbeing
  • A systematic review was conducted to identify key success factors for workplace health and wellbeing practices and their implementation in workplaces. They reviewed 74 separate studies that focused on the implementation of such practices and their effects on employee wellbeing. They found that one of the critical success factors for an intervention or policy to have a positive impact on employee wellbeing was ‘the continuity of effort and adaptation of interventions, supported by functional learning and governance structures’. What this meant in practice was having effective governance which captured any key changes needed to the wellbeing practice during implementation, making adaptations to the intervention throughout the organisation as needed, and having regular communication with stakeholders around workplace health and wellbeing practices to ensure that there was a clear narrative around workplace wellbeing practices from the top. Thus, the role of effective governance was key to promoting the success of an intervention or policy and subsequently its impact on the wellbeing and health of staff. 

This work has been translated into an online tool.


For Wellbeing NEDs:

  • Set some personal goals. What do you want to get out of your role this year? And longer term? Can you discuss this with other board colleagues, for example the Chair, Chief Executive and HR Director? Can you bring insight from staff wellbeing surveys and planned activity to shape your approach? 
  • Identify the support you need to succeed in your role, and communicate this. What skills do you bring to your role? What learning and development might you like to undertake? How will you access this? What partnerships/alliances can you form to help you in your role? Who are the individuals/teams who can support you?

For those supporting Wellbeing NEDs in organisations: 

  • Ensure your approach to wellbeing is well-led. Work alongside your Wellbeing Lead to embed the role within your organisation, Board and its committees. Seek to maintain a strong assurance focus, sharing responsibilities for formulating strategy and cultivating a wellbeing culture.  
  • Consider Wellbeing Lead capacity: Seek to establish a culture of collective wellbeing leadership. Balance insight and stories alongside corporate data. Ensure reporting is proportionate, useful and robust, and highlight where there are gaps in knowledge.
  • Develop tangible support and resources: Identify support for the Wellbeing Lead for example in areas of data, insight, collaborative working and evidence of what works. How might others in the organisation who are involved in promoting workforce wellbeing  work to support the Wellbeing Leads in their role?
  • Build a learning system for wellbeing in the organisational context. Continue to develop ways to gather and share data, and build opportunities for networking amongst Wellbeing Leads and other key stakeholders.
  • Curate the evidence base of What Works. Consider presenting this for different mechanisms and contexts. Capture, evaluate and share examples of organisational implementation, variation in approach and direct shaping of the role by those who take it on.  Effectively communicate this insight to people who can, and want to use it.  
  • Co-develop new content and tools. Continue to deliver tailored training and development, including content for newcomer Wellbeing Leads, as well as  those with experience in the role. 

One example of an organisation that has strengthened Board Level oversight of staff health and wellbeing is the NHS. In January 2021, the NHS introduced the recommendation and national requirement for all NHS acute trusts to appoint a board-level, non-executive director Wellbeing Guardian. By March 2022 92% of trusts had appointed Wellbeing Guardians. The role aims to assure and continue to reassure the board that their organisation is a wellbeing organisation and a healthy workplace in which NHS staff and learners can work and thrive. The role is at the heart of the NHS health and wellbeing framework, and provides a high-level culture change toolkit.

Things to consider

The role of effective governance for wellbeing
  1. Effective governance on wellbeing in itself improves effectiveness of wellbeing strategies.
  2. Authentic leadership
  3. Strategy aligned with values
  4. Integrated in governance systematically: Systems and processes to monitor, capture issue and act on adaptions
  5. Capability and capacity: clear role description, time, resources 
  6. Use of data, evidence and relational communications
  7. Regular assurance: knowing how people are doing and what’s happening
Governance questions to ask

How are people doing?

  • How do you know? What information sources? 
  • Does it cover all key drivers and/or more detail on relevant ones for different groups/context?
  • Who and How do we look at this regularly? 

What are we doing and why?

  • What are you already doing?
  • Do you know why/How it makes a difference?
  • Is it working well? How do we know? What evidence used? 
  • What gaps do you have? 
  • How do we learn?

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In this project

Theory of Change
Wellbeing Non-Executive Director Theory of Change
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Learning at Work and Wellbeing
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