Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group Cranfield School of Management
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A new dawn for employee wellbeing
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Will 2022 be a new dawn for employee wellbeing?

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While employee wellbeing is now widely recognised as a boardroom issue, many organisations are still focusing on sticking plasters rather than addressing the root causes. As we embark on 2022, Professor Emma Parry explores what really drives employee wellbeing and how to deliver a more evidence-informed approach.

12th Jan 2022
Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group Cranfield School of Management
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Over the past year,  there has been growing evidence that employee wellbeing is finally evolving from being an HR issue to one which is discussed in the boardroom. In a 2021 CIPD survey, three-quarters of respondents reported that senior leaders had wellbeing on their agenda – up from 61% in 2020.

The reasons behind this are clear – the last two years have been tough for employees. With 79% of employees reporting burnout, and 20% reporting mental health problems for the first time, many employers have been forced to wake up to their responsibilities in relation to employee wellbeing. 

Organisations need to move away from reactive approaches such as mindfulness and yoga sessions, that aim to fix the person, to addressing the workplace drivers of poor wellbeing.

Working in a fast-moving, complex world

Let me encourage you for a moment to reflect on the additional demands that your employees might be facing in today’s changing and increasingly complex operating context.

Take the move to remote and hybrid working. There is often an assumption that hybrid working is good for wellbeing as it potentially removes the need for a daily commute, allows people to work without distraction and can have positive effects on work-life balance.

However, the outcomes of working at home are not the same for all – it can lead to social isolation and the blurring of the boundaries between home and work. We have seen the rise of online presenteeism where employees feel that they are unable to switch off. It’s also important to remember that not everyone can work remotely, so for those in front line roles, the comparison with office workers who have the choice to work at home may also negatively affect their wellbeing. 

Let’s also consider technological advancement. While technology often makes our lives easier, the long-term uncertainty in occupations that are seeing increasing automation and the need to upskill or reskill as the result of digitisation can also have a chronic impact on wellbeing.

These trends, coupled with the current pandemic and ongoing pressures around productivity are all potentially damaging, therefore it is perhaps not surprising that employers are beginning to move wellbeing up their list of priorities. Alongside this is the recognition that employee wellbeing plays a key role in employee retention, as employers battle with fears of the ‘Great Resignation’. 

Wellbeing and the employee experience

What is clear to me is that approaches to wellbeing also need to change. Too often, organisations create standalone wellbeing initiatives, divorced from their wider approaches to employee experience. What we need is an integrated strategy that considers employee experience, engagement and wellbeing together. 

Importantly, employers need to consider in detail how the employee experience can promote – or harm – employee wellbeing.

To a large extent, wellbeing initiatives within organisations have focused on interventions that help individuals to develop aspects such as resilience and mindfulness. These approaches can be useful in highlighting the importance of wellbeing and in helping employees to manage stress but do not address the root causes of wellbeing issues at work.

Many of the common causes of poor wellbeing are work-based – almost half (49%) of respondents to a 2021 survey conducted by Ceridian cited high workload and just under a third (32%) pressure to meet deadlines, as catalysts for their burnout. In addition, aspects such as low levels of support, poor leadership, a lack of positive work relationships and a negative workplace culture can also have a detrimental effect on wellbeing.

Organisations need to move away from reactive approaches such as mindfulness and yoga sessions, that aim to fix the person, to addressing the workplace drivers of poor wellbeing. It is important as HR professionals that we take the time to reflect on the employee experience in depth, to identify those aspects that might be detrimental to wellbeing and to proactively develop a culture that instead promotes positive employee experience and wellbeing together. 

Creating a culture that is built on trust, inclusion, psychological safety and belonging is key to maintaining wellbeing.

What drives employee wellbeing?

Many of the things that drive a healthy organisation and promote wellbeing align with those that also encourage a positive employee experience and high employee engagement. There are five main aspects that are essential to wellbeing within organisations. Employees must: 

1. Have the resources they need to do their job

There is nothing more stressful than feeling that you don’t have the practical, physical or mental resources to do your job. As mentioned above, excessive workload and constant pressure from deadlines are the key drivers of stress and burnout, therefore it is essential that we monitor and address these issues as appropriate. 

2. Feel safe and supported

Organisational culture is as crucial for wellbeing as it is for employee experience generally. Thus, a focus on creating a culture that is built on trust, inclusion, psychological safety and belonging is key to maintaining wellbeing and to encouraging employees to share and discuss the challenges that they are facing and to improve their relationship with work. 

3. Have the opportunity to make a difference

Individuals also draw wellbeing from feeling that they are contributing, either to the organisation or more broadly to society and the people around them. Especially since the pandemic, we have seen a growing desire for meaningful work – the perception that we are doing something worthwhile in life is key to positive mental health.

Therefore, we also need to pay attention to the content and design of jobs so that they are meaningful to employees and consider how the organisation makes a difference to the world around it. 

4. Have skills and experience that are recognised and valued

Wellbeing can be damaged if people feel that their skills are no longer valued (such as if their role is automated), or that they are not learning and progressing in their careers. Development should therefore not only help people to manage their own resilience but also ensure that their skills remain relevant. Employees also need to be allowed the opportunity to use their competencies and be recognised and rewarded for these contributions. 

5. Build positive work relationships

Ultimately, relationships are the basis for positive wellbeing. Employees need constructive relationships with their line managers and opportunities to communicate, collaborate and socialise with their peers. This is particularly important, and might take more effort, in hybrid working environments where people are at risk of social isolation. 

The things that drive or damage wellbeing have not changed, but the context in which we are managing wellbeing has, bringing with it different challenges and different emphases.

An evidence-informed approach to managing wellbeing 

It would be remiss of me not to emphasise the importance of data in driving an organisation’s approaches to managing wellbeing. Three actions are important here. 

1. Interrogate organisational data

This can be about exploring the reasons behind absence rates, examining the results of employees, or conducting health risk assessments to understand the workforce’s wellbeing. A strategy for this should be based firmly on an in-depth understanding of the wellbeing within the workforce.  Technology plays a key role in this – by storing and supporting people analytics processes and collecting data through wearables or mobile applications.

2. Examine evidence for the effectiveness of wellbeing interventions

Wellbeing has become big business and the world is full of claims about what a particular intervention can do. However, the evidence suggests that many wellbeing interventions simply don’t work. We need to seek evidence of effectiveness, as well as consider what best fits with our employees’ needs. 

3. Listen to employees

It is impossible to overestimate the value of regular and open conversations between line managers and their team members. This allows us to understand experience and wellbeing at an individual level and to move beyond one-size-fits-all approaches. 

Employee wellbeing in 2022

To summarise, the things that drive or damage wellbeing have not changed, but the context in which we are managing wellbeing has, bringing with it different challenges and different emphases.

The key for employers in 2022 is to consider employee wellbeing alongside employee experience and engagement, and to develop holistic and evidence-based strategies for managing these within the current, complex environment.

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