Case study

Employee engagement and wellbeing: DSTL projects, training and advice team

How the Projects, Training and Advice team in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) improved the wellbeing of its staff from 2012 to 2014.


Key ideas from this case study:

  • promote flexible working – for staff and the business
  • invest in developing all team members
  • during periods of change communicate, communicate, communicate

The Projects, Training and Advice team in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is responsible for providing expert advice on chemical, biological and radiological weapons. It is composed of scientists, technicians and managers.

Over the period 2012 to 2014, the team has seen consistently high wellbeing scores (an average of 74%) despite significant structural changes. The Cabinet Office interviewed their group leader to understand what approaches are driving these excellent scores.

Test approaches in a team then implement them throughout the organisation

DSTL have been very supportive of my aim to prioritise engagement and wellbeing. The organisation created Employee Engagement Champions to improve our staff’s experience and there has been a focus on investing in managers to drive business improvement.

Within my team, a lot of what we have done is not novel. For example, I’ve ensured that staff have access to, and make use of, flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and special paid leave. People are able to work where and when suits them, as long as they can be contacted during business hours.

Invest in training

The group leader prioritised training as an objective for the whole team, which meant he could ensure money was spent on developing members of the team at every level. Spending on courses, such as Chartered training, has made people feel highly valued.

He also focused on recruiting new team leaders who had not only the technical skills required for the job, but also the people skills, something that can often be overlooked in a specialist environment. Existing staff are also able to attend courses on management skills, but in order to attend they have to demonstrate that they are committed and understand the benefits.

He also recognises that he himself is always learning and growing, is not a perfect leader and values feedback so he can improve.

Be clear about people’s roles and contribution

In order to ensure everyone understands their role and how they can play their part, I produced a one-side infographic explaining how the group and each group member’s objectives fit into the objectives of the organisation.

I also communicate success throughout the team, making sure that people at every grade receive recognition for great work. This has also led to a more inclusive environment in terms of diversity - no one feels like a minority.

Prioritising people was a core strategy I employed in a way that I had not previously employed as a leader.

Make sure issues are raised and addressed

There can be a tendency for group meetings to focus on what has worked well. In order to ensure I receive feedback on what is not working, I’ve adopted a ‘room 101’ approach in my meetings whereby staff are encouraged to share the things they would place in room 101. This also gives me the opportunity to discuss issues openly in front of the whole group.

Following a drive from HR, I have had numerous conversations with managers within the team to ensure they have the confidence to deal with poor performance, and provided training in handling it. I have also encouraged staff members to have conversations about their welfare.

Sustained high wellbeing drives high business performance

The group leader believes that high wellbeing has been a critical component of the success of the team. This is also in spite of significant structural changes, during which the group split into different teams. By being honest about the changes and communicating them clearly, anxiety was minimised.

Published 21 December 2016