What’s happening at the frontiers of wellbeing?

Man hiking in forest
Csondy/iStock
Share this content

This is the third in a series of articles about the state of workplace wellbeing. Here Paul Barrett from the Bank Workers Charity examines what’s happening at the frontiers of employee wellbeing. He considers how research in related disciplines is enriching our understanding of the factors that shape it and is giving rise to some innovative and practical workplace interventions.

Reading a feature on neuroscience recently I came across an unfamiliar concept - emotional contagion. It turns out to be a great example of how what we are learning in new fields of research has a resonance for how we think about the world of work.

What is emotional contagion?

In this instance neuroscientists found that positive and negative emotions spread, virus-like, across employees in work groups.

Workplace wellbeing is a complex, but still relatively young field and we continue to benefit from research into other disciplines.

One study involving 70 work teams from a range of industries, showed that within two hours, employees sitting in meetings together, shared their moods, both good and bad.

This went on to affect not just the employees’ moods but the quality of their judgement and decision-making.

There are important lessons here.

For example we know intuitively that bullying and aggressive management styles can create a toxic working environment but this research reveals the psychological processes through which the behaviours of individuals, particularly line managers and leaders, shape the psychological climate of their department or organisation.

Within two hours, employees sitting in meetings together, shared their moods, both good and bad.

The complexity of workplace wellbeing

Workplace wellbeing is a complex, but still relatively young field and we continue to benefit from research into other disciplines.

We already know that a range of related concepts affect employee wellbeing; things like trust, fairness, happiness and sense of purpose, have all been studied in relation to their impact on employees and their performance at work.

This is helping us build an ever more sophisticated understanding of workplace wellbeing and the factors that affect it.

In this piece I want to explore some emerging strands of wellbeing that are beginning to feature in or influence organisational wellbeing strategies. Those I have in mind are neuroscience, sleep, mindfulness and financial wellbeing.

Linking neuroscience to workplace wellbeing

In recent years neuroscience has provided unexpected insights into many areas of human behaviour and how we operate in and perceive the world.

Already some businesses are recognising that developments in this field have implications for how they train and motivate people. CIPD’s Peter Cheese is a strong advocate of harnessing the knowledge gleaned from this research to inform business practice and people management.

Modern living is already leaving many overstretched.

Prominent also is neuroscientist pioneer Dr David Rock,  whose SCARF construct is proving influential in bringing the lessons of neuroscience into the workplace. Built around the idea that much of the motivation driving our social behaviour is determined by the need to minimise threat and maximise reward, it has already reshaped how some companies in America carry out performance reviews.

The multi-tasking myth

Some neuroscience research is particularly relevant to our thinking around wellbeing at work. A recent example is the explosion of the myth of multi-tasking.

Studies have shown that contrary to received wisdom, an ability to juggle jobs and respond to work demands as the need arises is not a recipe for efficient task management.

On the contrary the evidence suggests that constantly changing priorities and projects is neither good for employee wellbeing nor effective performance. If instead employees are able to concentrate on a single task uninterrupted (mono-tasking), this is optimal for productivity.

Many of us experience a good night’s sleep as an event to be celebrated.

Neuroscience is a boom area for research and will no doubt continue to yield insights that cause us to question some long-standing assumptions about how we should conduct ourselves at work.

The importance of sleep

Sleep science is another field of research that is influencing wellbeing practice in the workplace.

It is employing ever more sophisticated investigative technology to expand our understanding of the purpose of sleep. Crucially, it is also revealing the damaging consequences of sleep deprivation.

Modern living is already leaving many overstretched.

There are a multitude of less serious consequences of sleep deficit which, whilst not life-threatening, seriously impair employee functioning at work.

With the boundaries between work and home increasingly blurred and a round-the-clock  addiction to electronic devices, whose night use is proven to inhibit sleep, many of us experience a good night’s sleep as an event to be celebrated.

We now know that sleep deprivation is linked to increased risk of seriously debilitating conditions such as diabetesheart attack, strokecancerobesity, and Alzheimer’s.

But forget for a moment chronic conditions; there are also a multitude of less serious consequences of sleep deficit which, whilst not life-threatening, seriously impair employee functioning at work.

What is the role of sleep?

Studies show that sleep performs a multitude of functions that are key to our wellbeing and performance.

The prefrontal cortex is especially vulnerable to lack of sleep, yet it is responsible for many complex cognitive functions and employees suffering from lack of sleep struggle with many tasks that involve logical thinking or deep thought.

Other cognitive processes compromised by sleep deprivation include numeracy, memory and concentration.

A NASA study identified 26 minutes as the optimal nap time for its pilots, improving alertness by 54% and performance by 24%.

It’s estimated that more than 30% of the UK population currently suffer from insomnia or another sleep disorder, so the implications for businesses are serious.

A Bupa survey found that workers deprived of sleep cost the UK economy an estimated £1.6bn a year, or £280 for each worker.

Now organisations are waking up to the fact that there are things that they can do.

Research has found that a brief nap can improve productivity and job performance for the rest of the day. A NASA study identified 26 minutes as the optimal nap time for its pilots, improving alertness by 54% and performance by 24%.

No surprise then that some forward-thinking companies are introducing various forms of sleep programmes as part of their wellbeing strategies. Google, Zappos and Ben & Jerry’s have all now introduced nap rooms into their offices.

A search on “sleep” in the App Store produces nearly five thousand apps and it would be no surprise to find the most effective of these being included in wellbeing programmes, as a cost- effective way of addressing the issue.

Linking mindfulness to wellbeing

Mindfulness is also appearing with increasing frequency in organisational approaches to wellbeing.

Ten years ago it was a little known activity, carried out in private by a small number of dedicated enthusiasts. Today it has become difficult to open a newspaper or magazine without seeing it extolled as the antidote to all of the problems of modern living.

Shorn of its spiritual dimension, mindfulness is a form of meditation that focuses on being in the present and stepping outside the whirl of daily life to find a moment of tranquility.

Many swear by its benefits and studies have confirmed its value in helping with common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

We are seeing mindfulness introduced into the workplace in a variety of ways. In some businesses it is provided to the workforce as a resilience-building tool. In others it is offered to business leaders, often under the banner of “the mindful leader”.

The cynic's view of mindfulness...

Its growing presence in organisational settings has caused some to view it more cynically.

It’s simply a way, they argue, for employers to shift responsibility onto employees for managing the stresses associated with their work, whilst ignoring the cultural and business practices that need addressing if the workplace is to be a truly healthy environment.

My own work is in the financial sector and I have see one of the high street banks sidestep this criticism by allowing mindfulness to grow organically within the organisation, as a bottom-up initiative.

31% of the middle class would need to borrow to meet an unexpected expenditure of £500 or more.

Initiated and led by a cohort of enthusiasts who obtained support from the business to allow group mindfulness sessions to be practiced at work, it spread almost virally across the organisation. There are now mindfulness groups in many of the bank’s locations across the UK.

It has grown naturally and my guess is, for that reason, it will probably outlast other more top-down approaches. Practising mindfulness has also been shown to improve decision making and aid concentration and focus.

As its evidence base broadens and deepens we can expect to see it continue to make inroads into the workplace.

The importance of financial wellbeing

The final field of research I want to draw attention to is financial wellbeing. Recent studies have given us a much greater appreciation of the extent to which employees financial circumstances impinge on their wellbeing.

According to a 2016 ONS survey 31% of the middle class would need to borrow to meet an unexpected expenditure of £500 or more.

When Barclays surveyed 2000 UK employees the findings were just as bleak. 46% worried about their finances; almost one in five lost sleep as a result of money problems and 20% said that their financial difficulties were affecting their work.

There are well-established links between serious and ongoing financial difficulties and mental health problems and even physical ailments.

In consequence some organisations now make provision of financial education and guidance a key component in their wellbeing strategies.

There are well-established links between serious and ongoing financial difficulties and mental health problems and even physical ailments.

This is, in itself, an interesting development as many wellbeing strategies, and indeed some models of wellbeing, continue to focus more narrowly on physical, mental and social wellbeing.

It's a good example of how conceptually the boundaries of wellbeing are broadening in scope and it represents one further step away from the early approaches to wellness that focused solely on measures to improve physical health.

Employee wellbeing is a young and evolving field, so our understanding of it will continue to be enriched by new research.

And we can expect to find that some of these insights provide  compelling arguments for doing things differently at work.

Where it can be proven that new interventions suggested by such studies can make a positive difference to key business priorities like performance and productivity, then we’ll surely see more of them become familiar features in the UK workplace.

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.

Replies

Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.