Wellbeing has been a hot topic for a while now with increasing awareness of mental health. The entire country going into lockdown, change and the unknown thrown upon us has really put wellbeing at the forefront of people’s minds. The impact on individuals and business is well documented although often not well understood. Poor mental and physical health will increase absence and employee turnover and will decrease performance, none of which is good for business.
I can tell you what wellbeing is not, it’s not an initiative, a wellbeing week or a recognition of mental health day. It’s not a social event to raise spirits. These things may contribute to your wellbeing strategy but they are not wellbeing. A wellbeing week, gifts of fruit, a week of walking meetings, an hours session on breathing, yoga, meditation, these things may have a short term effect but will not make an impact long term.
When talking about wellbeing, we’re talking about the mental and physical health of people. This is everyday, not once a year or to cheer people up. Healthy, happy people attend work more, are motivated, more productive and will proudly talk about the organisation they work for. It is in your interests to have a workplace that focuses on wellbeing all the time and doesn’t make it an add on.
A productive workforce needs to be physically and mentally healthy, we all understand the basics of a healthy diet, exercise and sleep - the basics for keeping healthy. As an employer you can’t force people to eat a healthy diet, exercise or sleep, that’s their prerogative. You can take away their ability to do these things, someone working excessive hours, will be getting less sleep, have less time for exercise and is more likely to be eating fast food. Before you even start to think about wellbeing initiatives, ask yourself - do we have a work environment that supports health and wellbeing?
When we’re focusing on wellbeing in the workplace, central to that is reducing stress and its impact on our people. Stress it should be noted is not a medical condition, it refers to pressure or tension that an individual feels. How we react to stress is individual, determined by all the circumstances we face as well as our personalities and even our history. Ask someone to hold a 1kg weight, most people can do this relatively easily. Add another, and another - keep adding and eventually the weight is too much to hold. We may not even need to keep adding weights, try standing holding the first weight, eventually your arms will tire and you can no longer hold the weight. The same applies to pressures we experience in work and life, individually we may be able to deal with each individual pressure, but put them all on together or over a prolonged period and the stress begins to have negative effects.
We must also note that it’s not just work related stress that may be impacting performance. As the lines blur more between work and home the strains increasingly cross from one to another. As with the weights example, it isn’t necessarily the last weight that is the problem, that’s just the one that tipped the balance. And then there are conflicting priorities, take the requirement to work late to finish a project, a parent who knows their child needs picking up from childcare by a particular time will find the need to work late particularly stressful or have to leave work and cope with feelings of guilt and anxiety from leaving the team behind. When you’re the team left to work once someone has left it can be difficult to have understanding for the pressure that person is feeling, particularly when you’re feeling the pressure to complete the project.
What do we mean by a work environment that supports health and wellbeing?
Consider issues like hours of work, are they reasonable? Do they allow appropriate breaks? If excessive hours are necessary due to the nature of the work, how are you compensating (their body not their wallet)? We all recognise work requires some pressure, there will be deadlines and customer demands, but is the pressure reasonable? Is management supportive? Do people have the right skills for the tasks? Are they being supplied with the right equipment? Is management available when they are needed? Is feedback timely and appropriate? Are people able to take breaks? Can they shut down from work? All of these things are about how you manage your workforce day to day.
What we’re talking about are three key things required for effective performance, the appropriate training, equipment and resources to do the role. Without these basics, the individual will not feel equipped to do the role and simply won’t be able to perform, they will feel increased levels of stress as a result - further decreasing their productivity.
If people are able to control the work they do, when they do it and how they do it, particularly if they also enjoy what they do they will be in the best place to look after their own health. In this ideal situation for the human body, the person should work when they are most productive, take appropriate breaks, eat when they need to, exercise and relax. Even without this level of control, autonomy over how to work is highly beneficial for reducing feelings of pressure. However that autonomy must come with clearly defined and understood roles and expected outcomes. The idea of autonomy can be taken to extremes, giving people a role and telling them to “make it their own” with no clear idea of what success even looks like. A lack of clearly defined expectations will increase pressure as a result of too many options and potential pitfalls as well as not knowing if they are doing a good job.
Positive and supportive management is vital to a healthy workplace. Management that are accessible and available, the open door policy as it was often referred. As remote working increases the importance of genuine accessibility and availability is vital. People need to understand how and when they can access management, know they will be listened to and that they will be supported. Regular one to one meetings are really useful to support this relationship building, even if the one to ones are over the phone. Just knowing that you have a manager’s undivided attention for a period of time to meet the needs of the individual is vital to positive and supportive management. Alongside this managers must provide regular and consistent feedback along with gratitude, it’s amazing how far a personal thank you goes and not knowing if you’re doing a good job is far worse than knowing how you could have done it better.
It is in your interest to have a management strategy that considers the wellbeing of your people, they will be more productive and employee turnover will be reduced. When you have this at the centre people will see the benefits of further wellbeing initiatives. Wellbeing should run through your employee benefits, Employee Assistance Programmes (Providing counselling and legal support), Gym membership, Fruit are the common options. Other options include things like massage, reflexology treatments, walking meetings and healthcare plans. These benefits reinforce a culture of valuing wellbeing as well as providing direct wellbeing benefits when taken up. Crucially they must be applied on to a healthy culture, none of these benefits will resolve an unhealthy work environment.
There are work environments where taking on unhealthy stresses is necessary, ambulance crews, police, counsellors, psychotherapists to name just a few. The nature of these roles is to protect and support others, they will see and hear horrific things, management can’t change this and in these cases appropriate care is required. Most organisations now recognise that when people are doing this type of work they need access to someone they can speak to for support. Most now recognise no human can keep witnessing others trauma and not need support themselves. If you’re managing people in these situations, put these things in place as an essential. If something exceptional happens, any workplace may need to put this type of support in place.
In every environment, wellbeing starts with how you manage your people. When you trust people, work with them and support them you’ll have the foundations of a healthy environment. Great people management is about understanding you are working with people, all individuals with their individual strengths and needs. If you have concerns about moral, high absence or high turnover, ask your team, listen to what they are telling you. If people are leaving ask why. Build trust by taking action on what you are being told. By really understanding what is going wrong, you can learn how to put it right.
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Article last updated: 28 October 2020
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