Aster Wellbeing Initiatives During the Pandemic 

During the pandemic the priority for the organisation’s well-being strategy focussed on social well-being in response to the national lockdown.

The aim was to keep colleagues well and connected at a time of total office closure. The challenge was to convert the wellbeing offer into a fully digital programme built around emotional, physical and financial wellbeing with a specific COVID-19 and social wellbeing focus.

Having already worked flexibly, IT infrastructure was established to support homeworking with immediate effect, but emotionally some of our colleagues were totally unprepared for the isolation and loneliness caused by the national lockdown. The ‘feeling connected’ element also needed to tackle the potentially negative experience of being on furlough leave, which for some ran into months away from work.

The key outcomes were:

  • Giving people access to the right information and support to be able to manage their own wellbeing or reach out when they couldn’t
  • Colleagues feeling engaged with the wellbeing offer
  • People feeling that wellbeing is a priority for Aster and that they feel valued

Aster signed the Time to Change pledge three years ago, which focussed on supporting colleagues’ mental health and tackling stigma around the subject. Investment in mental health and engagement meant they were in a solid position to ramp up efforts in response to the pandemic. They designed a new wellbeing campaign ‘Keeping Well and Feeling Connected’ within a fortnight of lockdown being announced and were able to move the largely face-to-face suite of training and awareness sessions to online within a matter of weeks.

Aster adapted quickly and redirected budget previously earmarked for wellbeing days to engage existing and new suppliers to deliver wellbeing sessions around COVID-19 anxiety, healthy home working and eating well in response to feedback from colleagues.

Julie Cridwell, employee experience lead explains the core components of the response to the lockdown:

“We worked closely with our HR and Communications teams, leaders and our cohort of over 90 mental health first aiders (MHFA) to design and deliver a furlough buddy programme. We also engaged our 100+ Wellbeing Champions from our Transformation Network to sense-check ideas, promote new initiatives at team level and lead the way on engaging with new channels and sessions. By 1st April 2020 we had launched our new wellbeing campaign through our intranet and replicated on MS Teams to ensure maximum reach. This included new social wellbeing channels for gamers, gardeners and a book club, and we increased our physical wellbeing offer to include Zoom Zumba, Pilates, Yoga and healthy eating. We live-streamed weekly mindfulness sessions and hosted a weekly lunchtime quiz. In response to school closures we created a parent zone to support colleagues trying to balance working from home and childcare/home schooling. We switched our classroom-based mental health training to virtual sessions and Dorset MIND played a crucial role in providing bespoke COVID-19 webinars that ran fortnightly during the first few months. These focused on looking after young children during the pandemic and dealing with anxiety.”

The Executive Board hosted live calls to keep colleagues up to date on decisions being made to keep them safe and set aside time for Q&A to further reassure colleagues. Wellbeing featured heavily with a consistent message that colleagues should fully utilise flexibility principals and that wellbeing was a priority. Children and pets became regular features of video calls and team meetings as people adapted to bringing their work life into their homes.

The need to scale back some frontline operations to keep colleagues and customers safe meant that over 300 colleagues were put on furlough leave until frontline services could resume. In response, Aster launched the furlough buddy programme in May. Weekly wellbeing check-in calls were made by the MHFA team which answered questions and signposted to wellbeing resources, such as the EAP and wellbeing sessions. Scripts were provided each week with key headlines and buddies were re-allocated each week as colleagues rotated between furlough and frontline operations.

Moving into the second lockdown, nutrition webinars and online art classes were added to the offer as well as webinars on how to work well at home and tackling zoom fatigue. Grief and loss webinars delivered by Dorset MIND were added to the programme together with sessions on stress and anxiety.

To recreate the ‘water-cooler’ moments, Aster introduced ‘Tea at 3pm’, hosted in a virtual kitchen four days a week for colleagues to drop in and have a chat.

The ‘Aster Elf Experience’ initiative spread a little joy to over 350 kids of Aster in December when colleagues could request a designed postcard, festive chocolates and reindeer food to be posted to their children.

January 2021 marked the launch of the Thrive: Mental Wellbeing app which is an NHS approved mental wellbeing support app to help prevent and manage stress, anxiety and related conditions. The app uses easy to learn clinically proven techniques and is currently being used regularly by over 150 colleagues.

Julie says:

“Although the health and wellbeing of our people has always been a priority for us, the COVID-19 pandemic has fast-tracked Aster towards a comprehensive digital offering. The importance of building social ties and feeling connected has proved to be a major factor in how well our colleagues feel emotionally, especially during months of social distancing. We quickly realised that with the majority of our people working in isolation, a successful wellbeing programme would create a sense of togetherness as well as arm people with tools, information and support that could help them manage their wellbeing throughout the pandemic.”


The feedback from the October 2020 colleague survey said that there was an increase from 77% to 84% (up from 66% the year before) of colleagues saying Aster cares about their mental health and wellbeing. Feedback confirmed that the key to achieving this was:

  1. Compassionate Leadership – Leaders being accessible and open about their own experiences and challenges. Understanding in practice the importance of flexibility principles to enable colleagues to balance work with home-schooling or carrying out caring responsibilities. Information picked up through ad-hoc conversations has led to a new leader wellbeing resource area on the intranet. Documents on subjects such as how to deal with threats of suicide or self-harm and stress at work are now in place.
  2. Colleagues shared experience – High engagement with webinars and social activities has been consistent with colleagues engaging with wellbeing content and promoting support on offer with lived experience examples. Colleagues supporting customers and other colleagues by making wellbeing check-in calls shared a collective positive experience from giving their time to help others. Challenges faced by younger colleagues around social isolation and worry associated with delays in training and attainment of qualifications were alleviated by a dedicated focus on apprentice wellbeing and regular check in calls.

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