Good medicine: what we can all learn from ‘social prescribing’


If you haven’t heard of it, you soon will, because ‘social prescribing’ is the new term for describing the process of a GP or other NHS professional referring a patient to non-clinical services to help with their health and wellbeing. 

It might involve anything from tidying up a shared outdoor space to helping out a local charity or supporting an arts group. Given its strong community base, social prescribing can be a particularly good way to help alleviate feelings of isolation which can arise during a spell of absence from work due to health issues. 

This isn’t to downplay the value of the return to work itself in assisting recovery from longer term illnesses – which now, of course, may include Long Covid. We should never forget that work can be good for mental health... but it’s important to get the dosage right. Affected employees may well benefit from a phased return to work, or a change of duties on a short or even longer-term basis. 

So as part of this journey, employers can build in access to activities away from the workplace itself to further benefit their employees and boost their mental and physical wellbeing. This is where we can all learn from the idea of social prescribing. 

Natural remedies 

What sort of activities? One option is to take a lead from the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May): nature. 

According to research by the Mental Health Foundation going for walks outside has been one of the top coping strategies during the pandemic, with 45% of people reporting that simply being in green spaces was vital for their mental health. Interacting with nature – pausing to take in previously overlooked plants or birds, or maybe spotting signs of seasonal changes – can reduce feelings of social isolation and add value to everyday experiences.    

But as employers, we can do more to embrace this than simply suggesting that our employees take the time to go for a walk. 

Encouraging employees to get closer to nature might mean lending a hand with a local park improvement project. It could mean encouraging staff to pick up litter from a local beauty spot, or finding a few helpers to take on some gardening at a hospice for elderly people. Volunteers may choose to put their existing skills to use for good causes – or take the opportunity to do something entirely different. At Aviva we have a business analyst who regularly volunteers at a hedgehog rescue centre, medicating unwell hogs and helping them put on weight before hibernation! 

As well as supporting individuals’ resilience, the benefits to business are enormous – and not just in terms of helping employees return to peak performance. Forming closer links with volunteer groups and charities can only help boost the reputation of a business – as a good place to work, and also as a caring organisation which contributes to the communities in which they operate. 

Helping others helps the helper 

But to return to the individual themselves, it’s not just being close to nature which is good for mental wellbeing. Helping other people helps the helper, too. This is central to the idea of social prescribing, and something which employers can easily take on board. 

Volunteering instils confidence and engenders the sense of self-worth which can help to build personal resilience. The feeling of doing good for someone else helps release endorphins, the body’s natural happy hormone, giving people a genuine boost to their mood and overall wellbeing. The social interaction people get can be invaluable to those who have been showing symptoms of social withdrawal – possibly during, or following, lockdown – which can often be a sign of worsening mental health.  

The experiences of Aviva’s our own people bear witness to the fact that even mundane tasks can become immeasurably rewarding when they’re performed in a cause the volunteer believes in. One of our senior managers puts it like this: 

“I signed up with the NHS Royal Voluntary Service for stewarding (directing people, wiping down seats and escalator handrails with anti-bac wipes). I did this for 3 hours one afternoon. If someone had offered me a paid job to spend an afternoon wiping chairs down, I would have refused it. But I’ll happily do it for free!” 

We’ve found employees are quick to recognise the benefits to their own wellbeing: 

“I’ve been volunteering as part of my local Help Hub, helping people with things like shopping and collecting prescriptions. It’s really benefitted my mental health too. I genuinely enjoy supporting my community and recently signed up as an NHS Responder Steward Volunteer.” 

At Aviva, we know the value of volunteering, so much so that we give our employees 21 paid hours leave every year for this purpose. We’ve found volunteering can also be a cost-effective form of team building… and wouldn’t you rather be supporting a good cause than staging a mock product launch or performing trust exercises? 

During the pandemic, many people will have experienced the benefits of volunteering for the first time. There has certainly been a need to help self-isolating people with tasks such as shopping or delivering prescriptions. But it’s important to remember that many elderly or vulnerable people will be just as much in need of assistance once the current restrictions have begun to be lifted – much as they were before the pandemic. Opportunities will still be plentiful. If you’re happy to free up a little of your employees’ time for this mutually beneficial work, it’s worth checking with local or national volunteering or community groups to find out where your people’s good intentions can be put to the most effective use. 

Make the most of the tech 

You might not think technology would play much of a role in a wellbeing approach that’s all about interacting with others and getting out and about, but it can be key in helping people realise how to put the principles of social prescribing into action. 

Your workplace benefits provider may offer access to a range of wellbeing apps which enable employees to take part in team events or encourage them to become more active. Often, they take the form of light-hearted challenges to help keep interest levels high. You don’t want that lot from accounts to register more steps than you this month, do you? 

So, as employers, there’s a lot we can take on board from the idea of social prescribing to help our own people. And the activities ‘prescribed’ are likely to be as popular with employees as they are beneficial. It’s anything but a bitter pill for them to swallow. 

By Debbie Bullock, Aviva’s wellbeing lead 

This article was provided by Aviva


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