It was a late night ‘what am I doing with my life’ moment that set Sarah McGuinness on a path to lead a group of revolutionaries out into the business world. Their mission? To be the champions of change when it comes to embracing all aspects of wellbeing in the workforce.

But it wasn’t quite ‘go to whoa’ for the corporate communications professional turned psychologist. In fact, McGuinness had a few steps to take before she found her calling as an entrepreneur.

“After finishing my psychology degree and training, I ended up working for the State Government in Victoria where I was involved in leadership training and development, with a focus on growing the level of emotional intelligence in the organisation.

“But what I discovered, even after all that strategy and training, was that people were still stressed and tired, and that’s when I started to realise that the issue was systemic. There can’t be change at an individual level if the wider organisation is actually part of the problem.”

While there’s no doubt the word ‘wellbeing’ is one that is jockeyed around more frequently than it would have been five to ten years ago, what does it actually mean? According to McGuinness, it encompasses a holistic view of every element required for an individual to be the best version of themselves.

“Firstly it is mental health – so thoughts and the brain itself. Then there is physical health, like flexibility, strength, organ health and fitness. And environmental health, like where you live.

“There is also social health, which is about community, having a social support network online and offline, as well as financial wellbeing. It’s really hard to achieve complete mental and physical wellness when you can’t afford the basics and you’re living below the poverty line.”

Some businesses may question the importance of wellbeing in the workplace, asking whether employers should really be responsible for the health and happiness of their employees. But according to McGuinness and her team, if organisations don’t have wellbeing on their radar now, there will be consequences down the road.

“It impacts on so many things, most crucially productivity and creativity. Without a focus on wellbeing, it will be hard to build a thriving business and people will be far more likely to burn out.”

In 2012 came a relocation back to Christchurch with her husband and the next move in her career – health coaching for businesses – but at this point, it felt like a lot of things were against McGuinness. Wellbeing was ‘new’ and ‘fluffy’, and the city was still recovering post quakes. It was when she went along to some startup incubators that she realised she was very different from everyone else there.

“Most of the attendees were males in their 20s, and here I was, a mum in my mid 30s. I remember someone from Silicon Valley coming to talk to us, who said that if you aren’t doing 100 hours a week in your business, you’re not going to succeed. And I thought to myself that it would just be impossible to achieve what I wanted to, I had children to look after and washing to do!”

But thankfully, none of the adversity put McGuinness off. Intrinsically passionate about growing awareness of the importance of wellbeing in the workplace, she continued to pivot her offering and in 2018, it was a survey of 100 organisations around New Zealand that led to the beginnings of the Revolutionaries of Wellbeing (also known as ROW – like rowing a boat in unison – an accidental, yet fortunately very appropriate, metaphor).

From this survey, four workplace wellbeing champions from high profile New Zealand organisations met via Skype to share their trials and tribulations, swap advice and generally support each other from their own learnings. Organically the group started to grow, and in 2019 there were 40 regular ‘revolutionaries’ who connected online on a regular basis, and 100 at the closing of the year.

Then Covid-19 hit. But instead of this derailing the plans McGuinness had for her business, it only added fuel to the fire. Because it was those very people she had been working with over the past two years who would lead organisations to tackle the crisis head on, resulting in a complete overhaul and refocus of the brands McGuinness had been building.

“Up until this time, I had been working on two businesses – My Health Revolution, a corporate wellbeing research and strategy consultancy, and Sarah McGuinness, a brand that provided information and resources to support mental fitness and self-care, as well as a mental health project called Take Care.

“But I realised that these people who I had been networking with now needed the right guidance more than ever to move through the global pandemic and the changed world beyond that.

“These champions led mental health initiatives, enabled working from home, contributed to business continuity, and supported wellbeing in as many ways as they possibly could to ensure employees had the support they needed. So by mid 2020, the Revolutionaries of Wellbeing (ROW) was born. The name represents the passion and dedication of the people in the network, they are revolutionaries. There was no guidebook, and yet they were out there creating a better world.”

ROW advocates for management to embrace the right health and wellbeing support in the workplace.

With the rebrand came a new direction for McGuinness, who was now residing in Queenstown, and ROW became dedicated to helping wellbeing leaders to build better workplaces, to drive positive change across industries and around the world.

Another significant catalyst for the reshaping of her business was McGuinness’s own personal experience with burnout and a recent diagnosis of fibromyalgia and ADHD.

On a regular basis she would be advising her clients to give their employees time off if they were feeling overwhelmed, even though it was something she was unable to do for herself. But after her second burnout at the end of 2020, McGuinness decided to put her hand up to tell her own story.

“I wanted to raise awareness that no one was immune from these issues, and to also encourage other people to speak up about their mental health.”

Now McGuinness is like a ‘connector’ of people, growing the membership of ROW to more than 400 people from across the globe and allowing these people to share ideas and facilitate new realms of what it means to embrace wellbeing in an organisation. There are also a number of packaged solutions available through ROW, some of which are run by McGuinness herself, and others by professionals in the ROW network.

While there is some very high wellbeing level strategy being developed on a daily basis, sometimes it is even the smallest wins that has her excited about what ROW has achieved so far.

“There was a member who learnt through the community that you could get a health practitioner to come and do free diabetes checks in the workplace, and it ended up uncovering someone who had diabetes but didn’t know it. It’s little things like that which can add up to big change at the end of the day.”

So what’s next for McGuinness and her revolutionaries? A plan to take over the world, in the nicest possible way of course. Her dream is to see the investment into wellbeing lifted across the board, and for every business to have a wellbeing champion working inside it. 2022 will be devoted to growing the awareness of ROW, as well as delving into the results of a global survey of wellbeing managers.

“We often hear from people in these roles that they’re juggling the management of wellbeing programs on top of an already busy role, and consequently it’s usually wellbeing activities that get pushed to the bottom of the list.

“We want to understand how that role is supported day-to-day, as that’s the critical missing piece in how workplaces improve wellbeing across the business.”

Story created in partnership with Startup Queenstown Lakes.

Innovation Nation is a series celebrating stories of innovation and entrepreneurship from around New Zealand.

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