Our Debbie: “Who advocates for you?”

Debbie Bullock (She/Her), Wellbeing Lead, on being the conscience of the business.

Debbie Bullock (She/Her), Wellbeing Lead, on being the conscience of the business. “In cartoons you get a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I think of myself as that angel, championing wellbeing - but that doesn't mean I don't have a commercial focus.”

Years back, I heard from colleagues that managers were saying, “We don’t have a policy on fans, so you can't have a desk fan unless it's summer.” To someone who's menopausal, that’s ridiculous. You can’t do your best work in those conditions.  

Now we have training to help managers support people going through the menopause. And we work with Peppy – an app that’s like a friend in your pocket who happens to be a menopause specialist.

As a menopausal woman myself, I think we offer good support. We're removing the stigma. People experiencing the menopause shouldn’t feel the need to hide – you know, we’re talking about 50% of the population. You don't get embarrassed talking about a broken leg or sickness, why should you with the menopause?

Wellbeing is about supporting all our people through different periods of their lives. It’s about treating people individually, which creates psychological safety. People should feel comfortable to ask for the support they need. It’s easier to do that if they know what’s available to them and so that's something we're always working on.

On fruit and yoga classes

A lot of businesses provide wellbeing benefits. That's great. But just offering those benefits doesn't mean you're looking after everybody's wellbeing. Culture is the game changer, and that goes beyond benefits. It's about psychological safety, good job design, work-life balance...

Organisations might say: we provide free yoga classes – tick. We provide fruit in the office – tick. We provide a wellbeing app - tick. Then they expect employees to work unimaginable hours under increasing strain, they don’t provide an inclusive environment.

Well, no. Fruit and yoga classes aren’t going to cut it. Problem is, benefits are easy to measure so lots of people talk about them. With culture it’s harder to know if you’re getting it right. I’m trying to make sure it’s about both at Aviva.

On the COVID-19 effect

I was 16 when I started working at Aviva. Back then, there were subsidised canteens, lots of clubs you could join. Squash, hockey, football… that kind of thing. People got a lot of support from those groups – that was wellbeing in a different guise, and it’s slowly developed over the years.

When the pandemic hit, recognition of wellbeing at work was turbo charged. I don't think I've ever been more in demand than I was in the first six months of COVID-19. It moved us into a different world of supporting people remotely.

If one good thing came out of COVID-19, it’s that people have been able to bring more of their whole selves to work. We’ve all had children or pets crashing meetings and seeing people in their own homes has created a broader understanding of each other.

But for many, the pandemic brought challenges: feelings of isolation, health concerns, grief.

Working from home, it’s easier to miss when someone who’s normally very chatty suddenly goes quiet. You need to ask, ‘Are you ok?’ more than once. The first time, the answer will come back ‘fine’ - it's standard, more like a greeting than a question you want a genuine answer to.

I'm glad Aviva had a good wellbeing program in place before the pandemic because it meant our colleagues were already aware of the support on offer. And we’ve been able to share a lot of what works for us with others. We've created wellbeing hubs. I do a lot of sharing on social media, too. Many of my fellow practitioners do the same – the world is a better place if we share.

On powerful moments

Last World Mental Health Day we asked people to share their experiences of mental health. We all have mental health, it's just at different ends of the spectrum for each of us at different times.

I shared my own story, just to help get things going. People started commenting and sharing. More and more people shared their stories as they began to realise they’re not alone. One person said to me, “This is the first time I’ve spoken to my manager about this - I hadn't previously felt able to.”

And when we started offering colleagues health checks, someone who had done one got in touch. The check had flagged that they needed to speak to their doctor about diabetes. They had no physical symptoms at all, but the doctor did blood tests and made a diagnosis.  

Moments like that are powerful. Changing things for the better for one individual. They’re the reason I get out of bed in the morning.

On lived experience

My son has a mitochondrial disorder. Over the years, he's had various hospital stays and major operations. As a parent, if there's one thing I wish could be different, I’d take that away.

At 23 he self-manages, but there are still times he wants an advocate to go with him to hospital appointments. Having flexibility at work and our carers' policies have helped with that over the years. It goes back to culture. A culture of psychological safety, of empathy and understanding. Realizing people have lives outside of work that underpins their wellbeing.

Equally, as someone who suffers from ill health anxiety, my lived experience means I understand some of the challenges colleagues can be facing. The same can be said about the fact that I’m experiencing the menopause.

Lived experience is really strong. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have support at work through my son's condition and for everything else that’s impacted my life. I've had some brilliant leaders who've let me focus on what was important at the time. That makes me proud to do the job I do; it makes me want to make sure my colleagues get that same support and empathy.

On influential people

My family, of course. Especially my son and my mum, who I lost when she was just 50. I was 24 and six months pregnant with my eldest. It was a challenging time, but it helped create the person I am today. I'm lucky my husband has always been there. We always say a marriage isn't about both of you being strong at the same time. It's about one of you being strong when the other one needs you.

And there was this one person, she wasn't ever my boss, who once said to me, “Who advocates for you?” When I didn’t know the answer to that, she said, “Well, obviously no-one.” She saw my potential and went on to have a big influence on my career. That was a lightbulb moment. It was fascinating to see a different side of how to progress which had never really occurred to me before. Now I try to make sure I advocate for others in the same way whenever I can.

On looking ahead

Hopefully very soon I’ll get my degree. I'm doing a Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship through work and I'm incredibly proud of studying at the age of 50 after leaving school at 16, having done no other academic training. I'm going for the whole gown and hat job, everything.

I want to see my kids continue to be well and happy, and from a work perspective I want to create a culture where people consider differences as a positive thing. Empathy and kindness are standard. I always say, every positive difference to every individual is a massive win. If I could bottle that feeling, I'd give it to everyone – that would really improve their wellbeing.


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