Wider lessons from the review into Amnesty International’s staff wellbeing

Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine
Acting editor, IOSH Magazine

An independent review of staff wellbeing at human rights group Amnesty International made the headlines in early February 2019 when it emerged that its working environment was often described as “toxic”.

The damning report, which was commissioned after two staff took their own lives last year, has threatened to seriously damage Amnesty’s credibility after it highlighted multiple cases of management using bullying and public humiliation to belittle staff. Perhaps not surprisingly, employee feedback has highlighted a severe lack of trust in senior figures, with management culture and heavy workloads both contributing to the top five reported sources of stress.

As the report acknowledges, Amnesty International’s “ambitious human rights mission naturally carries with it considerable and unusual pressures” and this probably goes part-way towards explaining the exceptional levels of stress reported. But what the case also illustrates is that even the most virtuous employers can make their people ill through putting unrealistic pressures on them and failing to install an adequate safety net when they can’t cope. In fact, it emerged that Amnesty lacked a comprehensive and integrated approach to supporting staff wellbeing.

Despite this, many staff reported having a good relationship with their individual line manager. Some were highly regarded for their compassion and attention to wellbeing and several had shown a flexibility that had contributed significantly to employee wellbeing.

This is a positive story to tell because too often the role of line managers can be negatively framed. Tony Vickers-Byrne, chief adviser, HR practice, at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, made an important point at an IOSH-convened summit on mental health, noting: “No line manager wants to ruin people’s health, but they lack the skills.” See IOSH Magazine, January 2019  (bit.ly/2URBWAd).

As Dr Carolyn Yeoman, operations director at OCAID Wellbeing, pointed out at the health and wellbeing round table reported in this issue, part of the problem is that senior managers often identify individual employees who have excelled in their field and promote them into a line manager role. What they forget is to equip that individual with the emotional intelligence and resilience to manage difficult conversations. 

Our round table also touched on how employers could measure the return on investment from health and wellbeing interventions. With chief executives having to justify spending during times of economic uncertainty, making a strong business case for supporting staff wellbeing has never been more critical. Readers may be heartened to learn about a new calculator that helps to quantify the financial impact of a workplace health intervention.

It would be remiss of me at this point not to thank Louis Wustemann for his excellent stewardship of IOSH Magazine from its inception in 2016. As a former editor of SHP, I intend to maintain the superb blueprint that he created for this publication, albeit with some minor amends, one of which will be to share this comment every other month with IOSH’s president, Dr Vincent Ho. I hope you enjoy this issue and I welcome your comments.


 Nick Warburton is acting editor of IOSH Magazine. He is a former editor of SHP and has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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