June 17, 2021

Q&A with Stephen Whittaker: Wellbeing is everything

In this week’s Q&A, we had a chat with Northern Health’s new Wellbeing Team Leader, Stephen Whittaker.

What’s your coffee order?

I’ve never had a sip of coffee in my life. I drink a lot of tea and, if I’m out at a café, a hot chocolate.

Tell us why you decided to go for this role at Northern Health?

I’m really passionate about the wellbeing of healthcare workers. I’m always amazed at the care provided and the dedication of healthcare workers to often put the wellbeing of others ahead of their own. Northern Health has received a Healthcare Worker Wellbeing Grant to enable us to raise the bar when it comes to how well we prioritise the wellbeing of our staff. My job is to deliver just that – both strategically and operationally – across Northern Health.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day. My role is both responsive and proactive when it comes to ensuring the wellbeing of our staff is at the forefront of everything we do. From meeting with leaders or staff to discussing wellbeing concerns, through to chairing our Wellbeing Working Group or promoting our Employee Assistance Program – there’s always more we can do to support our people.

What was your career before Northern Health?

Prior to arriving at Northern Health, I spent the past 18 months at RMIT University, leading staff wellbeing there. It was a mammoth effort last year to support a workforce of 10,000 going through significant change when universities in Australia were hit hard financially by the pandemic. We had to ensure we put the wellbeing of our people front and centre as the university experienced job losses and major restructuring. Before that, I spent five years at Melbourne Health leading staff wellbeing there too. When I arrived at Melbourne Health, wellbeing was effectively about fruit bowls and an annual wellbeing expo. When I left, we’d embedded wellbeing into the fabric of the organisation and into every aspect of the employee experience, making it a great place to work and a great place to receive care.

What are you hoping to achieve in your role at Northern Health?

I’m hoping to build on already established health and wellbeing offerings here at Northern Health, and to focus on building a culture of care across Northern Health through new initiatives. The research is clear; every effort we put into caring for our staff – in every aspect of their work – enables better care that is provided to our patients. Our staff will also feel psychologically safe at work knowing that their wellbeing is a priority, that they have a voice to share their concerns and provide feedback, and that it is a focus for the organisation. I’d love to see conversations about mental health and wellbeing as being normal and a part of the everyday, meaning no one is left behind and everyone feels safe to speak up, respectfully, about their concerns.

How can our staff best live the values of safe, kind and together?

Our staff can best live the values by caring for themselves and each other in the best way they can. If every interaction with everyone – patient or colleague – in the course of your day had those values at the core, we’d be building a culture of care that ensured everyone felt safe, heard, appreciated, valued and well.

What does ‘wellbeing’ mean to you?

Big question! Wellbeing is everything. It is when we have optimum physical, mental and social health. Wellbeing is achieved when we are connected with others and have good relationships, when we keep physically healthy through good movement and fitness, when we are continually learning new things, when we focus on the simple things that give us joy and when we give to others through small or large acts of kindness. All of these ways of being put together will help us achieve good wellbeing. In an organisational sense, wellbeing is achieved when staff feel physically and psychologically safe at work; safe to speak up about concerns, safe from harm and safe in knowing that the organisation has their back. Everyone has a role to play in supporting each other and enabling great staff wellbeing which enables great patient care.

What would people be most surprised to know about you?

I’m a big home cook. I really enjoy cooking good food at home and hosting family and friends over to share a meal.

What do you like to do in your free time?

My wife and I do a lot of camping and off-roading in the Victorian high country and, when there are no border restrictions, throughout central outback Australia. It fuels our wellbeing to be relaxed around a campfire enjoying the peace and quiet of the Australian bush.

If you could describe Northern Health in one sentence, what would it be?

I haven’t been here that long but my first impression is that it is a warm and welcoming place. Everyone has been very kind when welcoming me and there seems to be a really good culture here.