Did 2020 change how we view Employee Health & Wellbeing? 

Paul Johnson from Sheffield City Region spoke to Sharon Robson from our Active Travel Team….

Paul, tell me what your role is within Sheffield City Region and a little about your professional interest in workplace wellbeing?

I work in the Policy Team at Sheffield City Region. We provide data and analysis to underpin the decision-making of the Mayoral Combined Authority, Combined Authority, Local Enterprise Partnership and the Mayor. The main policy document is the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP), which sets out the strategic direction of how we will work with businesses for the benefit of the economy and the people of South Yorkshire. If you’re struggling to get to sleep at night, the consultation draft is available here.

I used to work in active travel and I’m a keen cyclist, so I know first-hand the wellbeing benefits of active travel. As part of my current role, I have been working with partners such as the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre on how to improve people’s wellbeing in Sheffield City Region. Covid-19 has elevated the importance of workplace wellbeing, and one of the few benefits of this pandemic is people recognising just how important it is, not just from a health perspective, but from a business perspective in terms of output and productivity. Illustrating the economic benefits of wellbeing is crucial in changing its perception of a nice thing to do to be a business-critical objective.


What have you seen as the biggest changes so far to your working life, and how have you and your team adapted?

I think some people previously thought working from home was a bit of a doss…I wish it was! Things have been manic for everyone at the Mayoral Combined Authority Executive. What has been great is everyone being willing to work extra hours to get things done. I’ve seen this for everyone in our team. We are all working longer hours, but the benefit of not having to commute has helped mitigate this a bit. 

The biggest change for me has been missing interacting with colleagues (not that everyone would believe this!), and the laughs that go with working in an office. Our team has reacted well to this by having 30-minute team meetings three times a week, where the first 28 minutes usually consist of Netflix chat and taking the mickey out of each other, before we realise we’ve only got two minutes left to talk about work. Positively, having more flexibility about when to do things out of work has been refreshing. Being freely able to go out for a bike ride or a walk at lunchtime has been great, although SCR was good at allowing that before.


In terms of the eventual return to work, what do you see as the most fundamental things to consider for employees? Not just at Sheffield City Region, but for any business in the region?

Keeping an element of flexibility. Working from home has led to more of work being output-driven rather than being sat at your desk. Giving flexibility to employees is good for productivity as well as wellbeing. Productivity and wellbeing are not mutually exclusive.

Not going back to eating lunch at your desk. I don’t eat my lunch at my desk working at home and having that separation between work time and your own time is important. I’ll try do this when I’m back in the office.

Not seeing someone not being in the office due to a cold/illness as a sign of weakness. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. A lesson from Covid-19 should be that people coming into work on packed trains when not feeling well isn’t a sensible thing to do. This could become this generation’s seatbelt culture change.  


Mental wellbeing is something that I have previously heard you talk about. Can you please expand on what that means in relation to the RTW?

I think it’s incumbent on us all to respect and prioritise people’s mental wellbeing more. The Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority has done some good things for this, but all employers need to have this as a priority. If they don’t, they may find staff recruitment is harder in the future. Sheffield City Region has the potential to be a leading place for employees’ wellbeing, with the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University being a great asset.


Physical activity is often linked to wellbeing, and at Sheffield City Region and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive there is a strong focus on keeping on the move and active travel, cycling and walking. How important is it for employers to include these factors into any RTW programme and staff wellbeing schemes going forward? What are the benefits of those incentives?

It’s really important. The national lockdown in the spring showed that we don’t all need to be in cars. Cycling activity increased more than 300%. It illustrated what a greener society could look like and the environmental and societal benefits that brings. The Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive are great for encouraging active travel. Although some more secure bike storage wouldn’t go amiss…

  • To organisations: enhanced job satisfaction, performance and productivity of its staff.
  • To the City Region: a healthier, happier and more prosperous community.


How have you kept active during the pandemic & WFH? Have you made any adjustments to how you would plan to travel to work when the time comes to go back to our offices in Broad Street West? 

I would encourage more walking meetings as a way for staff to get off their screens and meeting rooms. I’ve done this during this crisis, and it’s worked really well.

I like to keep fit normally, and I used to commute either by bike, train or running to the office. I’ve not cycled as much without commuting, so I’ve made more of an effort to go out on the bike with friends. If we end up coming into Broad Street West less in the future, I would consider using the train less frequently and cycling more.

Close up of bicycle wheel