Within the eye hospital group Optegra, care and safety are its biggest priorities – not just for patients. It believes that it is vital that every single member of staff feels cared for and safe to be themselves at work – no matter what.
DiversityQ spoke with Kathryn Bryant, Business Development Director at Optegra and founder of BeYOU, to learn more.
To realise its mission to be a truly inclusive workplace, Optegra established an employee forum called BeYOU, designed to celebrate and raise awareness of differences among employees. The desire was to bring lots of staff together to discuss and empathise with points deemed different – whether associated with race, religion, gender, mental health, single parenthood or the LGBTQ+ community.
To launch this group, buy-in was needed at the highest level, and thankfully it gained the immediate support of the Chief Executive – not just on the overall importance of celebrating diversity but also to allow the time, effort and funds to make it happen.
Optegra then set up a core committee to develop its strategy and establish five core areas of focus – LGBTQ+, women, wellbeing, disability and culture. Each area has an ‘owner’ to lead communication and events, from email communication with tips and advice to hosting panel events and guest speakers. The 15-strong core team also attends relevant external events such as the Pride parade, and tasks are shared to cover the extensive work involved.
Optegra is realistic about what it can achieve, and of course, as with all organisations, it has its business proprieties and commitments. Some months, its activity may consist of key information and links to other related charities or external key thought leaders. Other times, it may host interactive events, and the calendar is full.
“Our ultimate aim is that every individual – no matter their story – can feel comfortable, able and safe to be themselves,” says Bryant. “They should never feel they have to hide a part of themselves, whether they are gay, have mental health difficulties or are celebrating a religious event or custom; everyone at Optegra should be their full self at work and know they are supported.”
A priority of BeYOU is to make employees aware of themes, potential bigotry, conversations or words that people use. By discussing these topics, which can sometimes be very sensitive, everyone learns from each other’s stories.
“We can develop empathy and better understanding by spotlighting specific issues. This has been our experience thus far with BEYOU,” says Bryant.
“We can share engaging and carefully written materials to increase knowledge and enable a greater understanding – not taking people’s knowledge for granted – even starting from the basics, such as the right words to use in certain situations.
“Any messaging, even in small forms, is better than nothing. Every little helps as communication can start small and build up momentum over time.”
Optegra also sign-posts individuals to any support they may need. It has collated information from 24-hour helplines to relevant websites and organisations and flagged internal support from line managers.
As a result of all of Optegra’s hard work, BeYOU has had some excellent events which have brought together a high volume of employees. These include an online panel during Pride month for colleagues to share their experiences and challenges as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“We have had international leader Dr Narissa Ramdhani, who worked closely with Nelson Mandela, share her thoughts for Black History Month; and more recently, Manpreet Johal, founder of support organisation and podcast Heart’s Happiness, ran a webinar full of tips and tools for all to use for mental health.”
This webinar coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week. Bryant says it was encouraging to see so many people log on to openly share their stories – issues which ordinarily would not come up in a conversation in the work environment. “By sharing their vulnerability or struggle, for example, with post-natal depression, we can share togetherness and unity whilst helping others realise they are not alone. Sharing struggles helps people make connections and to support each other.”
Key to the success of such events is researching the best speakers, making the events interactive and carefully scheduling to ensure there is an audience to receive it. The right time of day is important to fit around work commitments. Too many events may be off-putting, says Bryant, so Optegra balances these with email and literature communication.
Bryant believes there are so many benefits to running a forum such as this.
“It shows that we value our staff and teams, it gives all individuals a voice, and creates a space for people to feel safe to attend work as their full selves.
“It is clear that if employees feel happy and valued at work, their productivity increases and they also become strong advocates for their place of work. This is far superior to a closed space where only a certain type of person feels valued or welcomed.
“So at Optegra, we will continue to ensure a culture of understanding, to share and appreciate different life stories, as we grow in empathy for each other, our patients, and people in all walks of life.
“We are living in difficult times with issues raised in the media where inclusivity appears to be challenged –, and while we have progressed so much of the past 10-20 years, there is still a great deal to be done. Empathy, celebrating differences and showing care can help, and we can all reap the rewards from this approach.”