Could canine capers be the secret to human happiness and productivity?

17th July 2019

Business writer Huw Sayer looks at some simple ‘life hacks’ that could help improve your wellbeing.

We all know a walk in the park can be good for your physical and mental health but sometimes we lack the motivation to take a break and stretch our legs. However, a canine companion can provide just the motivation you need to get up and get out. But, what if you don’t have a dog?

Here in Norfolk, university students and businesses are discovering the benefits of walking with other people’s dogs. That’s thanks to an award-winning dog walking company called Tom & Toto, who have come up with a novel ‘sharing economy’ idea. I had the pleasure of hearing about their work and other ways of boosting wellbeing and productivity at this year’s Norfolk Enterprise Festival.

Fun with a purpose

We do things differently in Norfolk. The county, particularly Norwich, has a long history of nonconformist beliefs and radical thinking. This might explain why, on a warm Saturday in July, over 400 people enjoyed a family day out networking, knowledge sharing and socialising in a large field.

The setting was the 620-acre Hoveton Hall Estate with its beautiful parkland, walled gardens and woodland walks. Here the organisers had pitched tents and marquees to host innovation talks, interactive displays and business advice centres. There were also numerous activities to keep the children happy, as well as a delicious selection of local food and drink.

The theme of this year’s festival was Sustainable Growth and the Green Economy. Speakers included David Parfrey, Executive Chair of Anglia Innovation Partnership LLP, who explained how scientists on Norwich Research Park were conducting world-leading research into new ways of treating crop disease and improving human health. We also heard from local tech entrepreneur, John Fagan, about how the rise of Mobility as a Service could strengthen connectivity in rural communities.

 

Netwalkies for wellbeing

A big challenge facing businesses aiming for sustainable growth is how to help employees maintain their physical and mental health. According to a Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions report, “In any year… one in six workers is likely to suffer from a mental health condition… equivalent to over five million workers.” As well as the human suffering, this comes at a huge cost, with estimates ranging from £26bn a year for business in lost productivity to £70bn for the UK as a whole (including all associated social costs).

To see how we might tackle this problem, the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor team decided to organise a series of short talks at the Norfolk Enterprise Festival on the topic of wellbeing and exercise. But, rather than host them in a tent, they decided to encourage visitors to stroll through the woodland gardens while listening to the speakers. When I said this was a family day out, I meant it – dogs were also welcome.

 

You may have been netwalking – the mobile version of networking – which is a great way to get teams out of the office and meeting other business people. Netwalkies are the same – but with dogs. The leader of our first netwalkie was Sarah Wright, founder and owner of Tom & Toto.

Suzy and Sarah from Tom & Toto

 

Business with a ‘pawpose’

Sarah had been a safari guide in the Kruger National Park in South Africa before working at Woburn Safari Park looking after wolves, bears, lions and tigers. When she returned to Norfolk seven years ago, she set up her own pet care company. She now has an 11-strong team, who walk over 250 dogs a week, and won the Dog Friendly Awards 2018 for the UK’s best dog walking service.

In 2018, University of East Anglia, aware that stress and loneliness is a big problem for many university students, hit on an innovative idea. They approached Sarah and her team to start offering weekly dog walks on the campus for students, bringing the dogs – with the permission of their owners, her clients.

The students loved it, with 99% saying the walks made them feel cheerful.  Many were far from home for the first time, missing both family and pets, and felt the group walks helped them avoid isolation. Others felt stressed about exams and saw the dogs as a good excuse to take a healthy break from revising. 

 

Since the beginning of the year, Sarah and her exceptional team have run fully booked campus walks every week of term for 30 students and 10 dogs. “The walks are great for the students because they can come on their own but quickly find themselves chatting with others,” says Sarah. “It’s such a fun and relaxed atmosphere and no one feels self-conscious because the dogs are always the centre of attention.”

The walks were part funded by Sport England and British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS). The success of the dog walks initiative has just received public recognition at the BUCS Awards 2019, for being a contributing factor to the UEA winning Physical Activity Excellence Award.The judges noted that the walks not only helped students become more active but also “increased emotional well-being, retention and a sense of community.”

Wellbeing walks has now become a key USP for the Tom & Toto team, championed by employee Suzy Copping who has had a long career in HR, with 15 years in the mental health field.  They now run a dedicated service offering local businesses wellbeing walks and visits. To find out more visit their dedicated wellbeing page or follow them on twitter @Tomandtoto

Just say no to get more energy

Our second speaker was Ian Hacon (and his staffy Lola). An accountant turned successful leisure company CEO, Ian now runs his own coaching and mentoring business called Energise.Me. He helps businesses become more productive by increasing energy, wellbeing and purpose in employers and employees.

Ian explained that he got into health and fitness just before his 40th birthday. He was doing well in business but realised he was out of condition physically. He decided to take up running and within two years had become an Ironman Triathlete, and has since competed for Team GB three times. 

Ian had already qualified as a business coach and, by his own admission, was fascinated by our powers of self-development. He realised that other business leaders were also struggling with their physical and mental health. As one told him, “the biggest problem my business has, is me.” He now offers such clients an immersive well-being programme in small cohorts (10-12 people max).

These programmes combine techniques for improving physical health with positive psychology, advice on better nutrition and how to get a good night’s sleep. As he explains, lack of sleep and water can lead to cognitive impairment and low energy, which in turn can make us crave sugary foods. However, Ian says one of the biggest problems people face is not so much managing themselves, as managing other people’s demands on their time.

He advocates saying no more often, particularly if you love to say yes but then get stressed when you take on too much. “Some of us have big egos, we like to be the centre of attention, but we are also people pleasers who don’t like to disappoint,” says Ian. “You have to pause before offering your time; give your rational brain a chance to catch up with the emotional impulse to please everyone.”

Gratitude could be the missing secret to happiness

Our final speaker (with his ‘story hound’ Luka) was Sam Ruddock, who runs his own company called Story Machine Productions. This offers immersive experiences for adults and children that bring stories alive. He collaborates with artists from multiple disciplines including dancers, actors, musicians, painters, designers, filmmakers, and writers.

 

 

 

Sam and Luka the Story hound

Sam’s message was simple: one of the best ways he has found to reduce stress is to stop worrying about what we can’t do. “We can’t all make a big difference,” he says “but we can all make a small difference and sometimes that is enough.” He advocates focusing on the positive impact we can have on our world, whether it as simple as being nice to strangers or volunteering in the community. 

He has also found having Luka has transformed his life by making him aware of – and grateful for – the good things in life. “Watching Luka being unconditionally happy was a revelation; he just goes out and enjoys life. He has also helped me meet loads of people because everyone wants to stop and say hello to him.” Sam now keeps a happiness list to remind him of 5-10 things that have made each day better. 

Sam admits gratitude doesn’t fix everything, life is not that simple, but suggests it can make a big difference to the way we look at our lives. His final suggestion is to buy or borrow a dog because it will encourage you to get up and out in all weathers. “There really is no substitute for fresh air and exercise to clear the mind.”

Next steps

If you are interested in other ways to improve your physical and mental well-being, check out these top tips from the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor on Walking to Work.