Happy at work: Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon draws inspiration from its new wellbeing programme

ON THE MOVE: Animator Tatiana Mazzei uses a special rubber fidget ball to reduce the risk of hand strain. Picture: Pat Moore

Workplace wellbeing initiatives, like those at award-winning Cartoon Saloon, can provide significant benefits to employees and companies alike, writes Áilín Quinlan

ANIMATOR Tatiana Mazzei has a dream job drawing cartoons all day for the hugely successful, multi-award-winning Kilkenny company Cartoon Saloon.

However, as the 34-year-old Brazilian points out, like every occupation, her work has its drawbacks. “We’re on the computer all day — drawing,” she says.

Not surprisingly, working in the same position for most of the day sometimes results in a sensation of strain in her arm or hand. “I draw on a tablet so it’s quite sedentary. You’re mostly in the same position all day.”

However, thanks to a series of workplace welbeing initiatives run this month by her employer, Tatiana is now very aware that she needs to move more during working hours to counteract the onset of repetitive strain.

So she now stretches regularly, uses a special rubber ‘fidget’ ball provided by her employer to dispel strain in her hand, and intends to sign up for a series of planned yoga and Pilates classes at her workplace.

“We got a good bit of information on how to do stretches, and I now do stretches every day,” she says. “I attended the taster sessions on yoga and pilates and will definitely do the classes in them.”

Nora Twomey, director and partner in the three-time Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy-nominated animation studio, explains why the studio introduced a series of welbeing initiatives. “Everyone here works really hard and our jobs demand using a desk and computer screen for several hours at a time.

“Exploring ways to maintain long term good habits around welbeing in the workplace is crucial for all businesses.

“We create cartoons, but this work can ironically be stressful at times, that’s why it’s good to foster positive habits around self-care and care for each other.”

Tatiana is one of many employees who, research shows, experience the benefits of workplace welbeing initiatives.

A study published in Forbes magazine in 2016 showed that not only does job satisfaction double with increased wellbeing — 89% of those with excellent wellbeing express job satisfaction versus 44% of employees with poor wellbeing — but productivity rises almost 20% in individuals who avail of these programmes.

Team productivity also increases, from 61% to 81% when team wellbeing goes from poor to excellent.

In fact, the study found, there’s not only better retention of staff in these workplaces, but employees with excellent wellbeing outperform their peers at every task, and are more resourceful and resilient, showing higher job engagement, experiencing less burnout and fewer sick days. They also tend to have higher emotional intelligence, produce higher quality work and seem to form better, more sociable relationships, with less interpersonal work conflict.

BIG STRETCH: Production assistant Paulina Zurakowska, Lighthouse Studios, Kilkenny, workout out at work. Picture: Pat Moore
BIG STRETCH: Production assistant Paulina Zurakowska, Lighthouse Studios, Kilkenny, workout out at work. Picture: Pat Moore

Cartoon Saloon introduced a new culture of workplace welbeing after its chief operating officer, Catherine Roycroft, noticed feelings of stiffness following long hours at her desk.

“Around that time we had also started to assess the office from an ergonomical point of view, as people were saying they had the same sense of physical strain that I was experiencing,” she recalls.

The company employs 220 at Cartoon Saloon and another 80 at its sister firm Lighthouse Studios.

“We decided to get everybody moving and stretching at their desks together to try to prevent injuries and to help people who are feeling strain.

“We’re a very visual company, so we put hand-prints on the wall near the kettle,” she says, explaining that anyone waiting for coffee can match their hand to the hand-print and push up against the wall “so that you’re stretching your wrists”.

That was the start. Next, the company brought in a physical therapist:

“He helped us design a programme of stretches,” says Roycroft who then had the programme converted into “a kind of Rolodex of stretches that stands on people’s desks”.

“As well as that we provided a hard rubber ball on each desk for people to fidget with.

“There’s also a stretching station in the canteen, and a yoga mat and instructions on how to stretch.”

The idea behind the wellbeing week, says Roycroft, was to focus on all aspects of health, from stretch sessions and demonstrations to healthy eating, mindfulness and stress relief.

“We started to add in other things, reaching out to different practitioners in Kilkenny in yoga, Pilates, physiotherapy and Alexander technique.

“We brought these experts in to talk and give lunchtime workshops and taster classes. People got a real feel for how to make your body feel good at work. “

Catherine Roycroft, chief operating officer at Cartoon Saloon
Catherine Roycroft, chief operating officer at Cartoon Saloon

Next up, the company created space for people to sit and meditate - it also plans to provide audio-guided mediation for employees.

“There was fantastic take-up by the employees,” says Roycroft.

“Getting everyone out doing stretches was great and the lunchtime tasters were maxed out,” she says, adding that there were waiting lists for classes on yoga, Pilates, hurling, tai chi and qui gong.

“I think the week really got people talking — it got people laughing,” she says.

It was clear employees experienced relief from doing the stretches — and this, she believes, will motivate them to keep it up.

At the end of the week, the company ran a survey asking for feedback. On the basis of the findings, it committed to introducing subsidised classes in yoga and Pilates as well as meditation facilities.

“We have a culture of minding our crew and making sure we integrate our lifestyle in our work— it’s about humanising and personalising the work-space,” explains Roycroft.

“Our overall mission is to keep out crew happy, healthy and pain-free.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), workplace health programmes are one of the best ways to prevent and control chronic disease, and also to support mental health. While employers are not legally bound to run wellbeing initiatives in the workplace, under Health and Safety legislation they have a duty to ensure that, as much as is reasonably practical, employees are not made sick or unsafe at work — and this includes mental wellness, says Patricia Murray, senior psychologist and inspector with the Health and Safety Authority, which ensures employers comply with these requirements.

“It’s about leaving work as healthy as when you arrived and ensuring that work will not make you unhealthy. Wellbeing is an extension of this,” she explains.

In 2016 the HSA conducted research through the University of Ulster which found a strong correlation between welbeing as measured by exercise, diet, relationships, sleeping and rumination, and workplace stress.

“We found that people who have high levels of wellbeing outside work find work less stressful,” she says.

The findings also showed a relationship between low levels of welbeing and low levels of happiness at work.

“To target wellbeing at work you need to assess what the needs of the workforce are,” she explains.

Workplace wellness programmes essentially “set the scene” for overall wellness. They can introduce people to the concept of positive diet through healthy offerings in the canteen or to exercise, by providing, for example, facilities for lunchtime walks or yoga classes and can help counteract feelings of stress by bringing in experts to provide strategies on how to cope with conflict and increase your mental energy.

“People might start it at work but the aim is to keep it going in the evening and at weekends. These programmes are important because they can affect the employee’s whole life,” Murray says.

Nora Twomey, director and partner in the studio.
Nora Twomey, director and partner in the studio.

She points to research published in Health Affairs magazine in 2010 which showed how workplace wellness programmes can generate savings for employers — the study found that medical costs fell by more than $3 for every dollar spent on workplace wellness programmes, and that absenteeism costs fell by almost $3 for every dollar spent.

There is also, as Cartoon Saloon found, a noticeable social benefit in bringing employees together.

“This can reduce silos at work, as employees can discuss issues that don’t relate to work,” explains Murray. “Anything that brings people together for non-work purposes is really good because it takes people out of silos and lets them establish new social connections within the workplace.”

Employers can also help with mental health issues, by providing experts to talk about time management, meeting protocols or email protocols, says Murray.

“Even though these are work issues they provide a forum for people to discuss how they’d like things to be done differently and improve the employee’s sense of control, which is also very important in welbeing.”

However, she emphasises, wellness initiatives must be voluntary. “Employers cannot undo people’s unhealthy habits in terms of people who don’t take exercise or have good sleep hygiene — all they can do is try to nudge people into slightly more healthy habits.”

However, the nudge often works because people are social beings and “tend to follow the herd”. If they are to have maximum effect, however, company wellness initiatives must, crucially, be backed up by an organisational culture that reflects this ideology, says GP Mark Rowe, an author and expert in lifestyle medicine who provides workshops to organisations and leadership teams in workplace wellbeing.

“Workplace wellbeing programmes are being recognised as having a very significant impact on organisations,” he says.

However, if a welbeing programme is simply regarded as a box-ticking exercise which is not reflected in company philosophy, the initiative “ will punch below its weight”.

“I work with leadership teams. They are the people who determine what an organisation’s culture is. If they don’t really buy into the concept, it won’t happen,” he says, adding that initiatives must focus on mental, psychological, and physical health.

A positive workplace culture starts with the leadership team and can be reflected in a number of ways, he says, whether it’s about giving people opportunity to be well at work through healthy eating opportunities, the option of sit/stand desks or even access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Rowe is a strong advocate of reward and recognition schemes, which, he says, “cost very little but have a massive impact”.

Workplace wellness pays for itself in terms of productivity, and better quality of work, he says.

“Wellbeing impacts on the quality of work done and the safety of employees and reduces workplace illness absenteeism and burnout.”

Wellbeing Day is on April 12 – see page 13

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