Looking Back on 12 Years of The Five Ways to Wellbeing

With this week being Mental Health Awareness week, I’m taking a look back at how our work on The Five Ways to Wellbeing became an important part of a growing global awareness. Mental health is now more important than ever, especially during COVID-19.

May 22, 2020 4 mins read

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. As you know, mental health and wellbeing is something I take very seriously. It’s part of why I do what I do. In the COVID-19 era, employee wellbeing has grown from being a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must-have’. In fact, it’s reported almost 48% of employers have improved their wellbeing strategies since the beginning of the pandemic.

This week also marks an opportunity for me to reflect on how far we’ve come with mental health awareness. 12 years ago, Dr. Jody Aked, who is now the Director of Client Success at Friday Pulse, and I worked on The Five Ways to Wellbeing. It’s something that we’re proud of because of its significant contribution to mental health awareness in the UK. Our work on this project that eventually came to shape Friday Pulse.

I hope you’ll forgive me for a little self-indulgence as I look back on this history.


Where the Five Ways to Wellbeing came from

In 2008, the UK Government began to push for improved awareness mental health. It commissioned over 100 separate reports and involved over 300 experts from a wide range of disciplines. During one discussion, I held a piece of fruit in my hands and said, “We need the mental health equivalent of five-a-day fruit and vegetables.” This was the beginning of a new project for us. The premise? Create a guide for ordinary people to take actions in their day-to-day lives that would improve their wellbeing. After extensive research and design, and the process of creating a long list of evidence-based actions, The Five Ways to Wellbeing were born:

  • Connect…
  • Be active…
  • Take notice…
  • Keep learning…
  • Give…

As well as a report, these five ways were printed on postcards and distributed freely. You’ll notice that after each phrase/word, there is a series of ellipsis (…). In contrast to most messaging from the government at the time, which tended to be prescriptive — telling people what to do — the Five Ways were an invitation to try to do something. We invited people to connect with people around you, go for a walk or run, be curious, learn new things, and do something nice for someone else. It was important for Jody and I to start where people were. These were simple things that people could do that didn’t cost money and were entirely in their control.

That simplicity is especially poignant today when we are staying at home due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Although we don’t have the freedom we are used to, we can still use the Five Ways to improve our wellbeing. An exercise you can do yourself is to take time to reflect on each of the Five Ways. Think about what you could do that helps you connect, be active, take notice, keep learning or give. These are all healthy activities for us to undertake, and they will help you feel more spontaneous and alive during these increasingly difficult times.


The Legacy of the Five Ways

Because this began as a government project, it meant that the Crown owned it — officially the Queen — and because of that, anyone could use it. People could adapt them, and they could travel as an idea.

And travel they did.

Across the past 12 years, some form of the Five Ways has been used around the world, across all cultures. A Chinese New Year event in Liverpool. An LGBTQ guide. A Norwegian kindergarten. A Maori translation in New Zealand. Because no one had to ask for permission to use it, organisations such as MIND and Action for Happiness have picked them up and put them to use. Even today, during the middle of this pandemic, the Five Ways have continued its iterations.

Over the last three months, the pandemic has accelerated this process. There is a very wide recognition that this is not only a health crisis but also a mental health one too. 42% of organisations now have plans to alter their benefit programmes, and 28% of employers are actively taking measures to reduce employee anxiety.

Politicians, public health officials and business leaders are all acutely aware that there are unprecedented stresses and strains on people. Tech companies like Google and Facebook are allowing their employees to work from home for the rest of the year, or even indefinitely. And, social media giant Twitter told its 5,000 employees that they would have the option of working remotely permanently.

This is an unprecedented amount of focus on mental wellbeing. The Five Ways, even though they were created over a decade ago, are still out there being used. Both the content and the style of their messaging is recognisable in the most recent public mental health advice from the NHS.

Now, I’m not looking for credit. To me, the fact that people are using it is the greatest compliment. It brings me the most joy.

That desire for utility is what drives Friday Pulse. From the Five Ways, the first product we designed was the Happiness at Work Survey. It had 40 questions and when I apologised to an organisational consultancy we were working with for how complicated it was they said, “Excellent, we can charge more money.”

That was the wrong take. I immediately knew we had more work to do as we wanted to make something simple and easy to understand. And most of all, it had to be transformative.  Behind the design of the Friday Pulse platform is a sincere desire to empower senior and team leaders to do a good job.

Much like how the Five Ways were designed for people to take control of their own lives and take action, Friday Pulse is for companies to take control of their own culture. It helps them look after their employee’s mental health by regularly reviewing their wellbeing data and acting on the insights it provides. I believe that you don’t always need an expensive consultant. You just need good data so you can see what you need to do. Today the Five Ways are the Friday way.


Here to help

During this pandemic period, my team and I are committed to helping businesses build better work cultures and improve employee morale. That’s why, we are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to our Friday Pulse people platform for 12 weeks.

For more information on how we can help your organization weather the crisis please contact my colleague Clive Steer at clive@fridaypulse.com