Wellbeing – you hear a lot about it these days, from the “economic wellbeing” of the nation to our own “mental wellbeing”. It’s one of those words like “holistic” that we are pretty sure we know what it means, but rather hope nobody asks us to explain it. In this article we look at what “wellbeing at work” is all about.
The dictionary definition for wellbeing is “a state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. The Social Audit Network says: “You can think of someone as having high well-being if they function well, have positive feelings day-to-day and overall and think their lives are going well; we call this ‘flourishing’.” By that definition most of us might enjoy wellbeing about once a week.
So far so good, but what does it mean in the work place? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says wellbeing is about: “Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation.”
The definition might sound like motherhood and apple pie, but the origins of the wellbeing agenda in the UK can be traced back to the early 2000s and the convergence of three very real, hard-headed public policy issues:
- Unsustainable numbers of people on Incapacity/Sickness Benefit.
- Increasing costs to business and, more acutely, the public sector, of sickness absence and an increasing proportion sickness due to mental health problems.
- The demographic implications of an ageing population that are going to require people to work longer into their old age.
In short, keeping people healthy and at work was becoming a critical issue for the wellbeing of the nation.
It also became clear that achieving the objective of keeping people at work and productive would involve action across a wider range of issues than just pay, conditions and traditional health and safety. The wellbeing movement recognised that employees are more likely to stay at work and be more productive if they are:
- physically and mentally well;
- content and happy about their work;
- engaged and motivated;
- continuously learning and developing;
- feeling good about the organisation they work for.
Thus, wellbeing is a strategic and wide-ranging programme focused on people’s wellness at work. It involves organisations working across a number of areas including:
Promoting exercise, e.g. cycle to work schemes and subsidised gym membership, promoting healthy eating, improving the working environment and encouraging staff to stop smoking.
Managing stress, training in mental health, mindfulness training, access to counseling and encouraging good work life balance.
Mentoring, development plans, career breaks, training accounts.
Developing a company culture that employees feel good about and engaged with, e.g. through strong values and ethics, Corporate Social Responsibility, diversity, equality and anti-bullying policies.
Organisation of work
Flexible working, giving employees greater autonomy, management of change.
The key measures of measures of success for wellbeing programmes are through metrics such as sickness absence days, staff turnover, the results of staff surveys and improvements in customer satisfaction and productivity. Although the number of organisations adopting the wellbeing agenda is growing rapidly, there is limited published data available, but decreases in sickness absence of between 10% and 40% have been reported.
What’s happening with Well-Being at Work?, CIPD 2007
Growing the health and well-being agenda: from first steps to full potential, CIPD, 2016
A growing number of organisations are taking the mental health of their staff seriously and implementing programmes to improving mental wellbeing in the workplace. However, if you are feeling this has all gone too far, here is our antidote – a six point guide to messing-up your staff’s mental health and boosting your sickness absence figures:
1. Allow workloads to become unreasonable
Most people like to keep busy and will willingly put in some extra effort to address short-term peaks in their work load, like month end. So, to really stress them you need the feeling of having too much work to do and not enough time to do it to be pretty much constant. This isn’t that difficult to do as left unchecked the natural effects of mission-creep and Parkinson’s Law will tend to increase workloads. Add in the effects of some cost-cutting, a bit of down-sizing and some ill-thought through initiatives and you’ll be onto a winner. While you may regularly doll out new work, try and avoid ever sitting down and reviewing you staff’s workload with them.
2. Put them to work in an unhealthy environment
This one is quite easy, as mostly it just needs a bit of neglect, a lack of imagination and some penny-pinching. Make sure there is no natural light and, if it is a job that requires concentration, arrange for plenty of ambient noise. Keep the place untidy, don’t pay any attention to ergonomics and don’t provide any space where they can get away from the workplace.
3. Be inflexible over how and when they work
Reducing the level of autonomy over how and when the job is done generally increases stress levels. So, strict procedures that don’t leave any leeway for initiative – even for something sensible like helping a customer – are good. You should be equally strict about working hours. They may have young children to bring up or elderly parents to care for, but don’t entertain any requests for flexible working.
4. Encourage a long-hours culture
Being inflexible about their contract hours, doesn’t mean you can’t get people to work longer. It’s actually quite easy to do as most people start out motivated, committed and, particularly in the UK, inclined to put the hours in. And, if you have done No.1 well, they’ll have to stay on to get things finished anyway. The downside is you have to lead by example, so you’ll have to get used to being the first in the morning and the last to leave at night. But hey, work-life balance is for wimps, right?
5. Avoid the human touch
You may well be an altogether reasonable human being, but it is best not to let them know it. So, don’t spend time getting to know them, don’t praise them and, above all, don’t ask if they are OK.
6. Keep changing
These days change is the new normal. This is great news, as frequent, poorly-managed change is a sure way to stress your staff. So, if you can maintain a near constant state of change through a series of top-down “restructuring”, “transformation” or “re-engineering” projects you’ll be on to a winner. If you can inject some uncertainty into the process, e.g. over who’s going to be going, who’s staying, all the better. Whatever you do, don’t bother with any of that time-consuming consultation and communications malarkey, it will just undo your hard-work.
Of course we’re just kidding – no one sets out to screw-up their staff’s mental health, but it is easy to do through a lack of awareness. That’s one of the reasons why we developed our Mental Health Awareness for Managers course.
Videos can be a great way of communicating the the issue of Mental Health at Work, but it can be tough finding good ones. Too many of them follow a similar format of talking heads (sufferers or experts) with a downbeat sound track – not the sort of thing to grab someone’s attention. However, there are some good ones out there – we’ve scoured to internet to find the best of the bunch.
No.1 The Power of OK
Produced by SeeMe Scotland, this is by far the best mental health video we have come across. It’s fun, fast-paced and powerful, and a refreshing change from the “talking heads” format. We really like the rhythm of the language and the images. We’d be equally happy showing it to a Board of Directors or a bunch of brickies on a building site. It does contain the f -word and other explicit language. but we think it is appropriate and justified.
No. 2 The Big Cheesy
The follow on from the Power of OK, focusing on the manager’s role. Equally well done.
No. 3 Mental Health at Work: Recognising distress
While not in the same class as The Power of OK, this video from the Mental Health Foundation for Royal Mail is well-produced and does a good job of encouraging people to talk about their mental health problems.. As well as being an expert, the narrator, Isabelle Goldie has a splendid Scottish accent which makes you sit up and take notice – think Jean Brodie.
No. 4 Ruby Wax: What’s so funny about Mental Illness? TED Talk
Ruby wax gives an insight in into living with depression in her inimitable style.
No. 5 Living with a mental disorder
OK, this is one of those talkingheads with a down beat sound track videos, but to our mind it does the best job of putting into words (and graphics) what it is like to experience stress, anxiety, depression and OCD.
The business case for addressing mental wellbeing in the workplace is now well-established. It is well-understood that mental health problems are relatively common and are a significant cause of extended sickness absence. But what should you be doing to improve things? Here are six things that should be near the top of your To Do list to improve mental health in your organisation.
1. Talking about Mental Health
It’s a culture change thing. To improve mental health at work the issue has to become less of a taboo subject – people have to get used to talking about it. So, anything you do to raise awareness of the issue and make talking about it the norm, is going to help. Ways of doing this include:
- Regularly covering mental health issues in staff newsletters.
- Using World Mental Health Day (10th October each year) to make a splash about the issue.
- Circulating some of the excellent videos from See Me Scotland, such as The Power of OK (contains explicit language).
- Talking about mental health at staff meetings/briefings.
2. Training Line Managers
There are at least three reasons why Line Managers have a key role to play in improving mental health at work:
- Their behaviours and the way they manage have a direct impact on the mental health of their staff.
- They are likely to be first to identify if an employee is having problems, e.g. starting to show the symptoms of stress.
- They will be on the front line of helping/supporting employees that do have a problem.
Without some basic training Line Managers are likely to struggle to engage with the issue. Training needs to cover:
- Common mental health conditions
- What impacts mental health
- Warning signs to look out for.
- How to talk to staff about their mental health.
- Management competencies for good mental health
The HSE have a useful Competency (self-assessment) Indicator Tool for Line Managers.
3. Reviewing work loads
Workloads have significant impact on stress levels. So make sure there is an effective framework in place for regularly reviewing staff workloads at appropriate intervals. This may take the form of weekly or monthly one-to-one meetings.
4. Encouraging exercise
Exercise not only improves physical health but has a significant positive impact on mental wellbeing. Ways of promoting exercise include:
- Encouraging staff to cycle or walk to work by installing secure bike racks, making information on cycle routes available and providing showers if possible.
- Allowing flexible hours to accommodate exercise at lunchtime.
- Allowing /encouraging desk bound staff to take breaks and walk around.
- Partnering with local gyms or sports centres.
- Holding interdepartmental competitions (rounders, volleyball…) and set up company sports teams.
- Entering teams for charity runs.
5. Talking about mental health in the staff reviews
Performance reviews/appraisals provide an opportunity for managers to discuss issues that impact on mental health with their staff: If it is appropriate, the reviews should include discussion issues such as:
- work load
- working hours and work life balance
- relationships with colleagues
- stress levels
6. Changing how you change
Change and the way it is managed has been shown to have significant impact on the mental wellbeing of staff. Frequent and poorly managed change can significantly increase stress and anxiety levels. However, the reality is that, across both the public and private sector, the frequency and pace of change is steadily increasing. Consequently, being able to manage change well is becoming a core capability for almost all organisations. When planning and undertaking change, the impact on the mental health of staff should be an issue for consideration. The adverse impact on staff’s mental health can be reduced by involving staff in the decision making progress from the earliest opportunity, maintaining good communications throughout the process and thinking carefully about the impact on workloads.