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Why Wellbeing in the Workplace Matters

Posted by Ann Caluori | Thu, 19/04/2018 - 15:53

Guest blog from Martin Short, Workplace Sector Lead for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing

As I come to the end of my secondment from the Ministry of Defence to the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, I've found myself reflecting on my experiences over the past 18 months as the Centre’s lead for wellbeing in the workplace.

I recall an early conversation with Nick Pahl at the Society of Occupational Medicine about the things that made employers take wellbeing seriously. We talked about the legal requirements that emerged from the need to make workplaces safe.  We discussed too the moral duty to care for staff that some good employers clearly felt (nothing new when one thinks of some of the Quaker business initiatives of the 19th century). The third area was the mounting evidence of the hard business benefits of wellbeing - in terms of staff performance, productivity, innovation, loyalty, brand reputation, retention and attendance.

Whilst it is a bit of a generalisation, I have found that most of the private and public sector organisations I have encountered seem to belong in one of three camps with respect to their attitude to workplace wellbeing.

Firstly there are those organisations who haven't really started their journey. Sometimes it is because, while Health and Safety responsibilities are understood, wellbeing is still perceived as something vague, flakey or ‘touchy feely’ which doesn’t really have a place in their ‘line of work’. More often though it seems that it is because many organisations don't really know where to start. Secondly there are those who recognise wellbeing as important, but since wellbeing is 'about people' then the best place for it is clearly within the HR Department.

Lastly there are those organisations where you feel it as you walk in through the door. The receptionist who notices the word 'Wellbeing' in your job title and wants to tell you all about the company’s flexible working policy - which she thinks is brilliant; the manager who chats about the mental health support he has been given; the busy staff notice board with its array of social activities and invitations; or the work spaces that always seem happier, buzzier, more creative places. It is those organisations where you feel that they have got wellbeing right - the pride in the organisation, the loyalty, the enthusiasm. Wellbeing just seems to be part of the DNA - ‘the way things are done here’. In most organisations of this type you can track it back to the leadership and a clear belief that wellbeing is both good for staff and good for business.

A follow on from this is that I now believe that workplace wellbeing is much broader in scope than I thought it was a year and a half ago. The traditional attitude to wellbeing in the workplace is that it is about employers encouraging individuals to make sensible lifestyle choices - getting some exercise, laying off the pizza and crisps, drinking in moderation and not smoking - but ultimately the buck stops with the individual. Mental health provisions, where they exist at all, are often reactive in nature or about developing individual resilience - perhaps some stress management training, access to a support line or some online self-help tools.

But once again those organisations that shine do it differently - for them it’s also about workplace culture and processes; creating ‘good work’, helping staff develop positive social relationships, encouraging peer support, giving managers the bandwidth, support and training they need to support their staff, and ensuring employees know that help is there for them if they find themselves struggling. Of course individuals must bear responsibility for many of the lifestyle choices they make, but managers and organisations have a duty too - not just to educate staff on staying healthy, but to create working environments where employees can thrive and give their best. The evidence of what these environments should look and feel like is growing steadily.

My final observation is a somewhat cautionary note about the future. The nature of our working lives and our workplaces may soon start to look very different - the gig economy, automation of low skilled work, pensions/retirement and demographic changes are all themes (among many others)  which have cropped up repeatedly in conversations over the past 18 months.

Quite what workplaces, in their many permutations, will look like in even ten years time is anyone’s guess. There is however a constant - and that is our human desire to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. If we accept the evidence that thriving staff deliver better business outcomes, then there is a lesson for us all as leaders, managers and employers. 

That lesson is that the more an organisation can develop the ability to promote good wellbeing in the workplace, the greater the likelihood that employees will be willing and able to help their organisation evolve and respond effectively to change, in whatever form it takes.

Martin Short is the Workplace Sector Lead for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing