Research Institution / Organisation

University of Exeter

Principal Researcher

Dr Marwa Tourkey

Level of Research


Project Start Date

June 2019

Research Context

Surfwell is based on the rapidly growing model of surf therapy, which is a form of social prescribing and has seen a great deal of investment in other sectors. The model uses the sport of surfing to bring staff together in a group environment to learn a new challenge, overcome a fear or barrier, and to support each other's welfare. The project uses a bespoke and highly developed peer support model to ensure the ongoing welfare of the participants, with an emphasis on self-management through enhanced coping strategies.

The aims of the project are to reduce stress, improve overall wellbeing, encourage early recovery and better mental health. The hypothesis behind this is that there will be an increase in productivity and a reduction in time spent off work with sickness related issues.

The key behind the early successes, are the relatability of the participants to the staff delivering the therapy. The team, who are all police officers and staff, have completed extensive research, gathering data from and working alongside other providers across the globe. Early indications show that participants are much more able to open up to the instructors due to a closer bond and understanding. The participants feel relatable to their peers and feel able to open up discussion much quicker. The environment and the new challenges which are all faced as a team of peers are the key to the success of supporting our staff.

Research Methodology

Quantitative and qualitative research is being gathered by the university research team.  The sample size is in the region of 40 participants to date, but is expected to reach around 80 by the end of the pilot study.
Participants complete before and after questions, one to one interviews, group interviews, and a personal development diary.

Interim reports and publications

Surfwell Project Preliminary Report
These are initial findings based on: 2 x 30mins focus groups, with overall 14 participants.
The findings address the impact of the Surfwell on participants’ individual general wellbeing, professional/organisational performance and finally providing an overview of critical success factors.
Overall the data suggests that the majority of participants view the intervention as an overwhelmingly positive experience on a variety of levels. They reported improvements in mood as well as identified changes that they can bring in their personal and professional life based on what they learned and experienced during their surfing session.

Personal level
Throughout the focus groups participants outlined the impact surfing session had on their emotions. Following the surf session multiple participants mentioned feeling mentally reinvigorated, physically reenergised and feeling that they experienced sense of achievement which built on their confidence.

  • Emotional change- The majority of participants verbally reported changes in their emotions. Participants expressed initial anxieties prior to the sessions which transformed into happiness, feeling relaxed and proud about their achievements for example.

  • Mentally reinvigorated- Multiple participants considered the session as a ‘reset button’ which has helped them to feel less overwhelmed about the upcoming week’s stresses.

  • Physically reenergised- Participants mentioned how although initially they felt physically tired following the session, they experienced the sensation of being reenergised soon after. This was one of the most frequently mentioned impact.

  • Sense of achievement- For multiple participants it was valuable to acknowledge their achievements however small.

Professional level
Participants felt that having the space to re-focus has changed their perceived ability to cope with the upcoming work week. One of the participants felt that they were able to pass on the learned tools to the people they work with. For example:

  • More focused
    ‘I’ve felt so much stress over the last couple of weeks and today I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time and then I can go back and start again. I’d be like, right let’s deal with these challenges and I almost feel like I can deal with the stuff now whereas before, I’d look at one thing and be like, oh my god, oh my god.’ 

  • Ability to cope
    ‘And that’s what I try and think of at the moment, I suppose change my mind-set when I’m working is, okay I’m not very happy at work at the moment but I know that this team believe in me and that helps me through my shifts at the moment.’

  • Impact on other people
    ‘Knowing that the therapy that the sea can do for you, I can then pass that on. So in my role it helps with development of others as well.’

Critical success factors
The encouraging and supportive environment mediated by the positive relationship with facilitators and instructors and being in the blue space enabled participants to build confidence and strive to do well in the sessions. Participants felt that facilitators' and peers' belief in their ability helped them to believe in themselves - giving them back a sense of control which weakens when struggling with mental health difficulties.

  • Creating an encouraging and supportive environment- Participants felt that the safe and supportive environment contributed largely to their motivation to engage and benefit from the session.

  • Participant- instructor relationship- Participants felt that having positive and encouraging relationship with instructors helped them to engage with surfing and a few participants highlighted how instructors' support helped them to overcome their initial anxiety.

  • Peer support
    ‘I get worried about been judged and I have really negative self-talks so for me, the positivity and the support that you get from your peers as well that are doing, that is such a positive thing for me and I just feel like that is going to help me ...’

  • Blue space- Participants described using coastal/sea environment as a way to reconnect with the present and using it as a de-stressing tool.
    ‘It’s another tool that you can use. It’s a place you can get away, you don’t have to pay to go down to it, you can just go down to it. It’s accessible so if you’ve had a real rubbish day at work, just head to the coast and you know what that cold water therapy can do. It’s been freezing today but when I was out there not once did I feel cold.’

Several participants felt that although one-off session was helpful, to be able to see improvements in the long terms on a personal and organisational level, we would need to interview them after attending several sessions.

Date due for completion

September 2020
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