How to get the best from your wellbeing strategy

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This is the second in a series of three pieces in which Paul Barrett from the Bank Workers Charity explores the changing landscape of workplace wellbeing. Here he identifies some of the factors that determine whether or not wellbeing strategies successfully connect with the workforce and go on to generate the personal and organisational benefits that their advocates claim.

Wellbeing spends are large and are on an upward trajectory. In 2016, the Global Wellness Institute estimated that workplace wellness is now a $40.7 billion industry worldwide.

As it continues to rise up the organisational agenda, where does this increased commitment to wellbeing come from?

Some organisations invest in it because they’re persuaded of its links to business success, others because it fits with their corporate responsibility agenda.

Some fund it to give themselves a competitive edge in talent acquisition, others because their peers are doing so and they don’t want to be left behind.

And of course there are those who do so because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

In 2016, the Global Wellness Institute estimated that workplace wellness is now a $40.7 billion industry worldwide.

The business case and the holistic view

The relationship between high levels of wellbeing and improvement in key business indicators like employee morale, engagement, job satisfaction and levels of presenteeism and sickness absence is well-recognised.

However there is a risk that if companies fail to take a holistic view as they develop their wellbeing strategies, they won’t see the positive impact that they expect. What do I mean by this?

It is crucial that managers understand the impact of their role and their behaviours on the wellbeing of their teams.

Simply that wellbeing strategies oughtn’t to be viewed, or developed, in isolation. They shouldn’t be bolted on; they need to be developed with the whole organisation in mind.

In other words they need to form part of a concerted effort to create a wellbeing culture that sits comfortably within the broader values of the business.

Understanding the 'holistic view'

Cultural factors more than anything else determine the success of a wellbeing strategy, which means that buy-in throughout the organisation is vital. Employee wellbeing should represent a community of interest with different organisational stakeholders all playing their part.

To start with, employees need to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing, particularly if the business is providing services and amenities to facilitate this.

Next, line managers need to be the custodians of the strategy, raising awareness of the programmes, encouraging staff to make use of them and modelling good behaviours themselves.

Finally, boardroom support for employee wellbeing needs to be evident to the workforce at large, ideally through high-profile board members championing it. All too frequently this doesn’t happen.

Typically, employee wellbeing is viewed as the responsibility of HR, when it needs to be owned by all key stakeholders in the organisation.

Wellbeing strategies oughtn’t to be viewed, or developed, in isolation.

The importance of the line manager

Perhaps the most important factor of all is the line manager.

Line managers are key, not only in their role as potential advocates and promoters of wellbeing programmes but because, through their management style and behaviours, they exert a huge influence, for good or bad, on the wellbeing of their teams.

Open, supportive management styles are linked to high levels of employee wellbeing and performance.

Studies show that managers who show an interest in employees individually and adopt a caring management style, engender high levels of trust and loyalty, as well as good performance.

Conversely, overbearing, controlling and detached management styles are associated with a higher incidence of common mental health problems such as stress, depression and anxiety in subordinates, as well as lower staff retention and reduced levels of performance.

It is crucial therefore that managers understand the impact of their role and their behaviours on the wellbeing of their teams.

A disproportionate burden? Maybe...

This might appear to place a disproportionate burden of responsibility on line managers, so we have to be careful here.

Having worked in management roles myself, I am all too aware that in today’s pared-back organisations, managers operate in very demanding environments, with greater pressure than ever to deliver on task.

Even managers whose default style is to engage with their people as individuals can discover that the time to do so can be almost impossible to find.

Moreover, if looking after employee wellbeing is not made an explicit work priority by the business, it’s hard to blame managers for focusing on those tasks on which they are being measured.

So businesses have an important role to play.

They need to incentivise managers to treat employee wellbeing seriously by placing it in their objectives and then measuring their performance against it with the same rigour they do other core business priorities. The risk otherwise is that the culture of the organisation centres only on task and the organisation fails to encourage the people-centred management behaviours that impact most positively on employees.

In such circumstances the positive outcomes for the business of any wellbeing programmes are likely to be undercut by the damaging consequences of unsupportive management behaviours.

Cultural factors more than anything else determine the success of a wellbeing strategy

Top team 'buy-in'

Another organisational factor that is essential to the success of a wellbeing strategy, has already been touched on – top team buy-in.

A good deal of headway has been made at board level over recent years and we’re seeing more businesses featuring employee wellbeing and engagement in their annual reporting.

The interest of top management in the success of a wellbeing strategy is key because it legitimises the time and commitment needed elsewhere in the organisation to foster a wellbeing culture.

The success of the “Time to Change” mental health campaign is changing the way many businesses deal with mental health at work and is a great example of what can be done when there is commitment from the top. 

Many participating businesses have had senior managers act as mental health champions and the initiatives were signed off and reported on at board level.

Failure to promote wellbeing programmes properly and systematically across the organisation means they’re likely to wither on the vine.

Similar momentum is needed with other employee wellbeing initiatives to give them the internal traction and legitimacy they need to prosper.

Time to shift working hours?

One consideration that really needs to be addressed if wellbeing strategies are to succeed is the approach of the business to working hours.

An extended working day is a familiar feature of the workplace landscape in the UK. Britain is known for its long-hours culture and over the last five years there has been a 15% increase in the number of people working more than 48 hours a week.

And this persists despite the fact that it hasn’t translated into productivity for the UK economy, which currently lies around twenty percentage points below our G7 peers.

Working longer hours clearly isn’t the answer and is destructive to the wellbeing of employees, whose family and personal lives suffer in consequence.

A wellbeing strategy works best when it’s comfortably aligned with an organisational culture that is already conducive to psychological health.

Working long hours is linked to a range of serious health issues including mental health problems, diabetes strokes and heart conditions.

In an organisation which has an embedded long hours culture the damaging consequences for staff are again likely to significantly reduce the impact of any wellbeing programmes.

The importance of getting peoples' attention

Finally, some programmes, whatever their strength, can fail to have impact because they never properly capture the attention of the workforce. To avoid this, effective communication is vital.

Failure to promote wellbeing programmes properly and systematically across the organisation means they’re likely to wither on the vine.

There is some evidence that programmes that target physical health, particularly around exercise and nutrition, simply serve the already committed and that those who most need these interventions don’t take up the offer.

Communication therefore isn’t just about letting the workforce know that wellbeing programmes are there, important though that is; it’s about careful messaging, so that those groups in the workforce to whom they’re most relevant understand their value and how to access them.

A wellbeing strategy works best when it’s comfortably aligned with an organisational culture that is already conducive to psychological health.

If it isn’t, there is a real risk it will disappoint.

In extremis it could even make things worse and be regarded cynically by the workforce, who see the business appearing  to value employee wellbeing, whilst persisting with behaviours and practices that are in many other ways inimical to it.

Conversely, a wellbeing strategy that is well managed, actively promoted and that sits within a supportive organisational culture, is the most effective way of creating a healthy workplace that supports the needs of employees and businesses alike.

About Paul Barrett

Paul Barrett, Bank Worker's Charity

Paul Barrett is the Head of Wellbeing for the Bank Workers Charity. An occupational psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in employee mental and physical health, he is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace, writing for the Work Foundation, CIPD, Good Day at Work, Fit For Work, Business Healthy and Wellbeing Pulse. Paul can be found on Twitter at @lcoridon.

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By PWT
01st Sep 2016 12:26

Do you know what? I may run a small business but I am gonna give this a right go

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