20th November 2019

10 People You Should Know in the World of Wellbeing: Alex Burbidge from Big Smiles


Written by Kendelle Tekstar

It feels fitting that to close this series I bring someone from the world of health and safety into the dialogue. Someone, who like myself, discovered a huge passion for workplace wellbeing, Alex Burbidge. After 11 years in a Head of role at 02, Alex chose to dedicate his professional life to supporting businesses to create happy, healthy workplaces where people are upskilled to help each other thrive when he founded his own consultancy, BigSmiles.

Before we get stuck into Alex’s story, you truly must check out The Path to Wellness Scorecard.

Alex created this free questionnaire to offer people steps they can take to improve their wellness. Give it a go, and if you know a coworker or friend who might benefit from it, share it!

So how does Alex define wellbeing in his own words?

“I don’t know about you, but I personally really struggle to define wellbeing in one line. For me it’s all about lived experiences where you can remember those moments in your life when you felt able to manage the ups and downs and at times really enjoy yourself.

The most vivid moments were when I was about 17.

Back then I hadn’t found a job that gave me that excitement or fulfilment. I was on a Youth Training Scheme (YTC) and really felt like I didn’t have a goal or purpose. In fact, like many young people, I didn’t see a future.

But I did have this amazing outlet… windsurfing.

I remember friends bringing over badly taped videos of windsurfing movies from Hawaii showcasing the best moves and athletes in the sport like Robbie Nash, Björn Dunkerbeck, and Jason Polakow.

But living in Lincoln really wasn’t Hawaii. However, it did create this close-knit community of windsurfers that were almost like an extension of my family. These guys came from all walks of life such as takeaway owners, bricklayers, mechanics, painters, project managers, van drivers, etc. Back in the 1990’s we were all super dedicated, or in most cases just crazy. Even now I still wonder why I braved Skegness beach on a snowy December morning.

You can imagine the wind whistling through your hair on a deserted beach. You enter the freezing water, hold your breath and literally get blinded by horizontal rain. The adrenaline of speeding down a rolling swell in the North Sea is actually really fun, but also pretty crazy if you don’t have the right help and support. There was often no coastguard watching over you or someone with a mobile phone ready to call the emergency services.

I remember thinking if my equipment breaks then that’s it, I’m then totally reliant on my windsurfing buddies to rescue me.

I’ve realised now that having a community is so good for you. It’s important for preventing loneliness and your overall wellbeing. The late neuroscientist John Cacioppo’s research certainly backs this up.

So, to answer your questions, I still believe that you need highly supportive communities and relationships that can positively boost your wellbeing. And I don’t mean you should get these from social media. That’s one of the major reasons for me to include community in the 6 pillars BigSmiles Wellness scorecard. We completed a significant amount of research and found that people who score high in these six areas are happier, more productive and resilient, and can significantly outperform those who don’t. Here’s the breakdown the of the six pillars of wellness.

Physical and financial health: Does your health, nutrition and finances optimise your wellness?

Support and mindset: Do you have a team of friends, mentors and professionals that give you the support and assistance you need?

Community: Do you have a ‘tribe’?

Negotiation and influence: Do you use your daily interactions to work towards the things you want and need?

Meaningful work: Do you get purpose, autonomy, and growth from your work?

Purpose and values: Do you know what your life goals are, and is your life structured around pursuing them?

As you can see, I enjoy looking at wellbeing as more of a multidimensional issue than one area like work”.

And what inspired him personally to transition from the world of health and safety to focusing specifically on employee wellbeing?

“I’m sure, like me, you’ve worked for some really caring employers who have made you feel that wellbeing is one of their top priorities. But unfortunately, there’s many more who just fail to see or understand the benefits.

I remember in my student days working in a pork pie factory. The work involved making pastry and stacking pork pies on trolley’s ready for baking. To be honest, it was a non-stop back breaking 12-hour shift.

One day I vividly recall noticing another worker struggling to stand up as he removed pastry from an industrial sized mixing bowl. He was in pain and could barely hold his head up.

I asked him if he needed a hand. He told me that he’d torn all his stomach muscles from lifting scraping bowls. I naively thought it was just one of those incidents. But underneath his overalls, he wore a brace and back support. This guy had literally been wearing this support for weeks so he could keep working to put food on the table. Not only that, you could literally see the stress on his face from all those conflicting demands and worry about his long-term health.

I thought to myself, I would never want to see this in any business. How could you let this man struggle? Especially when a simple conversation might give him a chance to rest, and then find a solution to this back-breaking work.

Then I started to think beyond the workplace…

What if this man was given support for his mental health and financial health? Also, what aspirations beyond the monthly pay cheque did he have? I know from personal experience that often you almost only focus on the weekly/monthly wage when you’re paid below the national living wage.

It was only later in my career when I was able draw on these ideas that I found myself wanting to ensure that physical, and the often invisible mental health issues, were treated equally. Not just an idea but part of the business strategy and something I could offer.

In fact, as I moved into the corporate world I saw less of the physical issues and more of the invisible mental health problems. I’m sure you’ve seen people taking on multiple demands, but feeling unable to say NO for fear of losing their position or missing out on getting to the next level.

That’s when I started to use the Health and Safety Executives Stress Management standards to get an indication of what was happening at work. The data started to give some great insight. I also created focus groups with representatives from all over the business to build tools and support for the main topics. I’ve got to be honest I’m a bit of a fan of the HSE stress management standards and used them regularly in one-to-one meetings with employees who were struggling.

Fast forward into 2019, and I’m now convinced that you cannot separate health, safety and wellbeing.

I’m a real advocate of connecting these issues and making it part of business values. When I deliver IOSH managing safely courses, I include my own stress management section to show managers the basic steps to support teams and individuals. The feedback constantly shows that you need to talk openly about stress and how to approach it.

I must however say that there is no silver bullet and it’s totally down the business or individual to define their own wellbeing values and strategy”.

So what is Alex’s approach?

“I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist so we will keep away from the clinical end of things and really talk about the practical things that employees can do to really improve their wellbeing at work. And you probably already know that Gallup says that 85% of people don’t enjoy work so there’s plenty of opportunity to make a difference.

That’s why our unique approach is all about tackling the fundamental issues with the workplace. Often the overlooked issues are related to the ability of employees to create habits around stress management, conflict resolution, and financial health. That’s why we’ve created workshops on all these topics and more.

One of our recent success stories was delivering a workshop to a client without talking about the word ‘stress’. You can imagine a technology company saying that most of our people work under extreme pressure so let’s not make this a real issue.

We basically covered all the elements of how to build new habits to promote resilience and happiness. And at the same time showed stress in a positive light. We did this in a one hour workshop to 40 technology developers who gave us some really great feedback especially around changing their reliance on social media and online gaming.

I’m certainly happy to talk to anyone about adapting one of our workshops to tackle their real pain points”.

When we spoke, Alex mentioned that training interventions aren’t enough when it comes to wellbeing. So what does a company and the individuals within it need to do to make a training intervention truly effective?

“There’s global competition now to attract and retain talent, and these sought-after employees are starting to ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Here some example questions:

· How will the business develop and look after my wellbeing in the long-term?

· What kind of support is offered for mental and physical health?

· What is the impact of the business on local communities, families and the wider environment?

· Is there a tribe I can join and become actively involved with, even if I live 1,000 miles away?

· Does my manager have the soft skills to coach me and bring out my true potential?

· What level of flexibility and control do I have over how the work is completed?

And I really don’t see these questions being just asked by one generation. Every generation is now asking the same question. That’s why you need to consider training that not only answers these questions, but also builds a culture that fosters ongoing engagement around wellbeing.

I believe failure to do this means you’ll see employees thinking they were duped into working at your company, and rather than actively working on that next big product launch, they’ll be looking at their next exit strategy. Now that’s bad for everyone”.

I also asked Alex to look to the future when I prompted the following question: What do you think are going to be the most difficult wellbeing related challenges businesses will face over the next 5 years? What are the first steps businesses can take now to set themselves up for success to manage these challenges?

“You’ve got to look at both the global economy and what is happening with technology.

At the 2019 Mobile World Congress, OnePlus CEO, Pete Lau, gave a vision of a world where the new 5G mobile network would ‘fundamentally change our lives’. What he’s saying is that soon all those smart switches and sensors will be connected by 5G to deliver the ‘age of IoT (Internet of Things)’ between 2025 and 2030.

What this will mean is faster networks, new business, applications and services. The ability to be permanently connected to the customer will be a reality.

Tien Tzuo in his book ‘Subscribed’ supports this view. He talks about a digital transformation where business must give customers a personalised experience to remain ahead of the game. He said this about Apple ID, as a great example.

‘As each year passes, Apple cares less and less about how many iPhones it ships, and more about its revenue per Apple ID, lifetime value per Apple ID, and efficiency metrics toward growing the base and value of those Apple’.

… So, what’s the challenge and opportunity for wellbeing?

I predict that you’ll see technology replacing people at a rapid pace. This means companies will reduce their headcount until they reorganise into a core team of engineers, marketing and financial professionals.

Outsourcing of manufacturing and non-core services will become the norm. You’ll see SME’s and Corporate’s become a global employer overnight where they seek out talent by employing in remote locations.

With this radical transformation, I feel that The Future of Wellness At Work 2016 published by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) can give you some great insight. They talk openly about 3 major challenges and opportunities facing employers:

Physical Environment

Achieving basic health and safety standards isn’t enough for employees. The GWI state that forward-looking companies are now infusing wellness-enhancing features into buildings and work spaces, and are using workplace design and natural elements to encourage healthy behaviours, collaboration, and creativity among workers.


Employers will widen their wellbeing programmes to address the most pressing issues, such as work-life balance, safe drinking water, living wage, or managing personal finances. I certainly see this being very much tailored to individuals where contracts of employment are designed with personal wellbeing circumstances in mind, and tackle the growing issues of stress and negative culture, like 24/7 working.

Social and Community

The GWI really promotes the need to encourage friendship and trust at work, which not only increases our productivity as workers, but also improves our personal wellbeing. As you know from a personal point of view, I really feel this one is a major problem for most employers and should be a real focus point for a global workforce”.

I don’t know about you, but this vision of the future of wellbeing is motivating for me. Thank you Alex for your thoughts to wrap up 10 People You Should Know. It’s been a fantastic learning experience for me writing these articles and hopefully for those of you who have followed along!

Want to learn more about Alex’s services? Submit an enquiry here.