After nine months of uncertainty (and varying levels of lockdown), there’s no question that ‘we’re here for you’ fatigue is setting across workplaces everywhere. While internal comms people have been working overtime to deliver more staff communications than ever before, there are only so many ways to creatively share Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) details. And while repeat messaging is a key tenant of communications, cut through is questionable at this stage.

The pandemic has put corporate affairs and communications in the spotlight, and we’ve been given an opportunity to shine. In many organisations, it’s the comms people who have been at the frontline of employee support, working hand in hand with HR teams to make sure staff have access to mental, physical and emotional support, tools and resources.

At MetLife Australia we found ourselves at the beginning of winter, with the majority of staff choosing to work from home in Sydney and people in Melbourne in full lockdown, looking for a way to keep our people healthy. We knew that despite providing support through EAP, ideas and tips for keeping active at home and looking after mental health, and even holding virtual cooking classes, we could see our people still needed more. 

While our CSR committee was trying to resolve the issue of volunteering in a COVID-19 world, our Health, Wellbeing and Safety committee were trying to find innovative ways to encourage staff to proactively manage their physical health. 

Meanwhile our long-term partner, Habitat for Humanity, an organisation which builds strength, stability, and self-reliance through shelter, were not able to offer in person volunteering, limiting much needed funding.

The solution? Bringing all these together we created a simple proposition: for every 30 minutes of activity, $10 was donated to Habitat for Humanity by the MetLife Foundation, over an eight-week period. We called it Fit for Humanity and within a matter of weeks, launched the campaign to staff.

In truth, this was an experiment and we weren’t sure what level of engagement to expect, how much exercise people were already doing or how motivating $10 for 30 minutes would be. But in an environment where everyone’s world had been turned upside down, we had the opportunity to support both our people and a valued charity partner, so now was the time to have a go. 

Did it work? Well, we reached our target donation, with 30% of staff participating, doing an average of more than 2 hours exercise per week or four 30-minute sessions per week. Three people clocked over 100 hours in the eight weeks - one a cyclist, one an acrobat (yes, you read that right) and another who combined running with weight training. All decent stats but the really interesting insights came from the post campaign survey. 

Around 90% said they would participate again – very promising and the tick I need to build it into next year’s calendar. Almost 50% of participants increased their activity – another tick to getting our people moving. More than 90% said they felt good about making a positive contribution to the community – and that was what I found most intriguing. 

We knew that people’s plates were full and overflowing - working from home, dealing with the merging of personal life with work life (kitchen table office, spare bedroom meeting room, et al), endless ‘you’re on mute’ video calls, and home schooling. Did this mean people didn’t have anything left to give for others? Clearly not. 

It also got me wondering if volunteering could positively contribute to mental health and building resilience, in addition to the feel-good factor that comes with corporate volunteering. Unfortunately, we didn’t ask this question in our survey, so I don’t have a definitive answer when it comes to Fit for Humanity. But it did prompt me to do some digging. 

Recent research published in the Journal of Happiness (!) suggests that people who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives and that people who volunteer regularly, were likely to have better mental health than those not volunteering or doing so infrequently. 

Beyond Blue agree that volunteering can be a good way to manage mental health and encourage people to find ways to give back.

Much of the research and commentary suggests the mental health benefits come from the social connection it creates. But ‘volunteering’ from home in the form of exercising, didn’t necessarily drive social connection, yet people felt good by contributing to the community.

So does that mean volunteering should become a component of your workplace mental health strategy? As another option to supporting workplace mental health, it is a good one to consider. Volunteering has long been used in the corporate world to drive staff engagement, build reputation and create a sense of purpose. Perhaps the mental health benefits are yet another compelling reason to facilitate corporate volunteering. We certainly saw significant benefits to bringing CSR and workplace health together.

And maybe next year I will have the foresight to ask participants if volunteering helped their mental health. 

Regardless, we plan to offer the program again next year. And in the ultimate feel good factor, Habitat for Humanity now have a volunteering format they are rolling out to other corporate partners, while in person volunteering continues to be limited. Everyone wins.

And for me, as someone who uses running and yoga to actively manage my own mental health, it was a major bonus knowing that I was helping others by helping myself (I came in fourth on the Fit for Humanity leader board). 

Sarah Kelly
Director, Communications