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How to be authentic about workplace wellbeing

22nd Jul 2022
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Showing genuine care for employees’ wellbeing is an on-going process – lessons from the pandemic

How organisations responded to the pandemic illustrates something important to workplace wellbeing programmes, which may not have been as noticeable in normal operating circumstances. Based on in-depth data from eight organisations covering the early stages of lockdown in the UK and easing of restrictions some months later, we found that organisations that responded proactively and consistently to employee concerns over their wellbeing were seen by employees to be more authentic. Authenticity is important because employees are likely to ‘give back’ through effort and commitment.

 

Published in July in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Management, our study also revealed what organisational actions underpinned authenticity. We labelled this ‘authenticity building’. Authenticity is built over time by organisations being consistent in showing their care for their employees wellbeing and ‘walking the talk’. Authenticity building is an on-going process of past and present activities for wellbeing.

 

Conditions for authenticity building

To an extent, what organisations did before lockdown established more or less favourable conditions for building authenticity. So having an existing wellbeing programme provided a clear signal to employees that the organisation did care and the basis for being seen as genuine in their current actions.

 

A critical component of being authentic was having in place means through which key wellbeing practitioners could interact with employees so that emerging wellbeing issues could be identified and resolved swiftly. Being practiced in responding to employee concerns in normal circumstances helped organisations respond to employees’ concerns when the crisis began.

 

Organisational responses to the pandemic and lockdown

The pandemic required organisations to adapt rapidly in the way work was conducted and frequently where work was undertaken. Moreover, organisations were faced with twin threats to employee health and the anxieties associated the risk of infection and also to their own objectives -even survival - as the economic shock of lockdown took hold.

 

The threats to employee wellbeing and organisational performance, all in context of rapid organisational change with no known end-point, created tensions for organisations in how to strive for both performance and wellbeing.

 

The authentic organisations recognised that adapting to new ways of working would inevitably mean that performance may suffer for some employees in the short-term, but that employee wellbeing was important in the longer-term. In authentic organisations, senior managers were salient in communicating these messages to employees and role-modelling – for example communicating they were taking breaks to discourage others from over-working. In contrast, less authentic organisations prioritised performance over wellbeing.

 

Authentic organisations post-lockdown

Authentic organisations were in touch with their employees’ concerns and acted quickly to identify, understand and act where possible. This involved practical steps such as mandating working from home before official government advice and supplying equipment to do so to ally health concerns. Other examples included moving support networks on-line as well as providing electronic access to wellbeing resources and remaining flexible as issues arose. The key here is that the authentic organisations maintained or obtained the ability to listen to and respond to employee concerns through the early stages of lockdown and beyond. That meant that organisations adapted their messaging and adapted their wellbeing activities through the pandemic.

 

Developing and evolving a response to changing circumstances enabled the authentic organisations to demonstrate consistency between messages of concern for employee wellbeing and organisational action – and this consistency was the basis for employees seeing the organisation as authentic. However, what our data illustrate is that establishing an authentic wellbeing programme is not a one-off activity but requires continuous effort and adaptation to changing circumstances.

 

Lessons for post-pandemic wellbeing programmes

Also in July, our team published findings from a four year programme of research conducted before the pandemic in a book entitled ‘Achieving Sustainable Workplace Wellbeing’. In this book, we show how organisations develop and embed workplace wellbeing programmes through a process of continually adapting the programme to adapt to changing circumstances.  This adaptation requires listening to a range of stakeholders and learning what works and how to make things work for that organisation at that time. A strong business case that addresses issues specific to the organisation is also required, whether this be a recruitment, retention, engagement or absence problem. 

 

The findings from our research through the pandemic reinforce these conclusions, but also establish the importance of proactive responses based on addressing employee concerns as they arise. During less turbulent times, addressing changing employee concerns may not require such rapid or radical responses as during the early stages of lockdown. The findings suggest twin benefits from such proactive adaptation. Not only does the wellbeing programme remain fit-for-purpose and up-to-date, adapting the wellbeing programme signals genuine care – which in itself promotes employee wellbeing.

 

One other lesson from our research during the pandemic is that is it easier for organisations to protect employee wellbeing during crises if they already have developed workplace wellbeing strategies.

 

References and links

The academic research covered in this article, as well as other findings from a six year programme of research on workplace wellbeing programmes, have been developed into a free-to-use, online toolkit called ‘The Evolve Workplace Wellbeing online toolkit’. The toolkit also includes a free-to-use business case calculator.

 

The specific sources referenced are:

Daniels, K., Watson, D., Nayani, R., Tregaskis, O. (2022). Achieving Sustainable Workplace Wellbeing. Dordrecht: Springer Nature.

Nayani, R., Baric. M., Patey, J., Fitzhugh, H., Watson, D., Tregaskis, O., Daniels, K. (2022). Authenticity in the pursuit of mutuality during crisis. British Journal of Management. Published on-line: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8551.12628

The research was supported by Economic and Social Research Council grant numbers: ES/S012648/1  & ES/T001771/1.

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