Wellbeing initiatives: are employers expected to be life coaches?
Workplace wellbeing initiatives have boomed in recent years, but are employers going too far in what they are offering? Organisations are not responsible for managing every aspect of each employee’s life, yet the move towards nanny territory is fast approaching.
Employee wellbeing is becoming a more prominent feature on organisations’ agendas. What used to be a touchy-feely, nice-to-have concept is now a recognised necessity in the workplace. Wellbeing initiatives have been rolled out to address concerns made apparent from staff engagement surveys, working days lost and retention rates, consequently giving them a competitive edge to demonstrate they care.
And initiatives can be successful. The Mental Health Foundation’s long-standing Mental Health Awareness Week campaign, for example, has been adopted by organisations to get people talking about mental health at work, and I’ve seen the fantastic reception to this through success stories on social media.
However, it’s also become apparent that wellbeing initiatives can be ineffective if they don’t match the needs of employees. People Management claim ‘organisations are more reliant on the general logic that wellbeing is a positive thing rather than any tangible proof,’ resulting in ineffective initiatives.
CMI report that Barnet Waddingham’s latest UK Workplace Wellbeing Index suggest that 60% of companies who have a wellbeing initiative have seen their employee wellbeing at moderate to very low.
Is the wellbeing hype moving us into nanny territory?
This got me thinking about wellbeing initiatives in general. ‘Wellbeing’ is such a broad concept that has various connotations (e.g. health, mental health, finances, relationships, family, social stresses etc.). Are we at risk of enforcing a wellbeing initiative that helps employees be healthy, when the actual root issue isn’t being addressed?
For example, poor flexible working policies or incompetent line managers affect wellbeing, but I’m concerned we’ve forgotten the role and responsibilities of employers to their employees, as well as their place in society, with the label ‘wellbeing’, which has non-work influencing factors.
With every employee taking on their own individual stance and attitude to work, job satisfaction and wellbeing, we can’t possibly meet every single employee’s needs.
I’m not alone with this concern. Anjana Ahuja from the Financial Times fears that we are straying into nanny territory; employers may be inadvertently taking the responsibility of wellbeing out of employees’ hands and into their own, all without realising the damaging impact this could have by relinquishing employees of this responsibility, which is ultimately theirs.
Happy employees do not equate to productive employees
There’s also a general assumption that there’s a correlation between happy and productive employees. However, I can be both happy and unproductive if work doesn’t mean a lot to me but my social life at work does (i.e. spending more time chatting than working).
Conversely, I can be both unhappy and productive if I have a sense of work pride (i.e. if home life isn’t great right now so I retrieve some control in life by doing a good job).
We need to look at what we want from employees – do we want them to be happy?
Or do we want them to fulfil their contract and do the job we pay them to do in a productive way? Employers are not here to make people well or to remedy life’s problems by offering training on how to save money, for example. They are here to provide work that uses employees’ skills in a psychologically safe workplace.
People worry about relationships, be it finding their soulmate or marital breakdowns, but it isn’t expected of organisations to educate their staff on relationships.
With every employee taking on their own individual stance and attitude to work, job satisfaction and wellbeing, we can’t possibly meet every single employee’s needs. We cater for the accumulative data from the workforce while disregarding their individual needs, as well as the choices they have available to them.
Every employee has a choice and can make their own decisions; if an employee is unhappy with work, the odds are no amount of wellbeing initiatives will make them happy. They have already decided they dislike the job and sometimes that means taking wellbeing into their own hands by looking for somewhere else – a concept that seems to be a taboo thing to say.
Why can’t we start telling people, sympathetically, ‘if the job is making you so unhappy, why are you still here?’ Harsh? Possibly. Logical? Absolutely.
Employers should not be providing support for every facet of wellbeing
The workplace is not a place to seek wellbeing. It is not a place to make people well or to help employees deal with life matters, for example how they manage their finances. Financial wellbeing initiatives have grabbed organisations’ attention recently, attempting to help employees learn about saving and writing off student debt. Where does the nannying end?
People also worry about relationships, be it finding their soulmate or marital breakdowns, but it isn’t expected of organisations to educate their staff on relationships. Deloitte reports that 40% of workers face high stress in their jobs, driven by the ‘always on’ culture, which makes me concerned that looking after all non-work aspects of employees’ lives only promotes this.
Of course there are other factors that influence employee wellbeing besides the job itself - bullying and harassment is a serious problem in any organisation and comes under a completely separate issue and label. The employee’s wellbeing is affected, for sure, but that isn’t the issue - the behaviour of the bully is and should be dealt with accordingly.
Similarly the employee-manager relationship is often a key factor to wellbeing. Again this is a separate issue of conflict and relationship breakdown/rebuilding that needs to be addressed with a targeted approach.
We mustn’t forget the legal implications of employee wellbeing neither. Health and safety legislation requires employers to provide a safe workplace for employees. This can be achieved without wellbeing initiatives.
The gym memberships, the fruit on the desk, the walking clubs - these aren’t things that keep us compliant. And while it’s not about compliance, it’s important to remind ourselves of the role of an employer.
We need to stop labelling everything as a wellbeing initiative
So what can be done? If we get rid of the broad, generic label of wellbeing initiatives, what can we replace it with?
I think there needs to be a more focused approach to efforts, one that addresses each concern both as it appears and in anticipation – and not under an objective label of ‘wellbeing’.
For example, engagement has been linked to employee wellbeing; this is different to productivity and relies on the individual’s approach to their role and their work ethic. To keep employees engaged, they need to be challenged and developed, have autonomy and feel safe in their team and working environment. This will, in most cases, have a consequent knock-on effect on their wellbeing.
People feel well as a result of enjoyable work and meeting their own wellbeing needs.
And if they can’t engage with their role (and insist on staying put)? There are a few quick wins that can be considered - career coaching (to help them identify what they enjoy and how to pursue it), training (resilience, assertiveness, and interpersonal skills) and being flexible with working hours (so to attend counselling or gym sessions or seek legal advice for a personal matter).
This addresses specific wellbeing needs as well as - most importantly - laying the responsibility and accountability in the employee’s hands to address their own needs.
Employers are not life coaches. They have a responsibility to facilitate and promote a healthy and psychologically safe environment, and make it an enjoyable experience to come to work, but they are not responsible for managing every aspect of each employee’s life.
People feel well as a result of enjoyable work and meeting their own wellbeing needs. This relies on their individual preferences and career aspirations, and enforcing any sort of broad brush approach to address these with wellbeing initiatives isn’t looking at the real picture.
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Charles Goff-Deakins is a senior HR policy specialist and a member of the CIPD with HR and managerial experience from the private and public sectors. He is a HR policy lead, author of the book 'HR Beyond the Theory', HR feature writer, career development blogger and editor, international speaker, and a hungry learner. He also founded the career...