Is it time to reimagine wellbeing in the workplace?

Most organisations would probably agree that business has largely accepted the need to bring ‘wellbeing’ into the core of what they do. Once seen as peripheral, soft, or ‘fluffy’, the pandemic has made us begin to reconsider its centrality to core business activity. But to bring about lasting, meaningful change and to ensure it’s seen as fundamental – we’ll need to relook at existing perceptions, challenge them, and envisage the impact of this reimagining of a wellbeing 2.0.

First, let’s take a step back. In exposing our domestic settings to the world in unflinching detail over the last year, the façade that many wear at work has slipped. And, although there have been some drawbacks, there have been some positives. We’ve discovered that informality has aided efficiency rather than been its enemy. Conversations have, arguably, been easier than expected, as has building relationships inside and outside our organisations too. We’ve found out that reducing the distance between our personal and professional lives – and accepting them as two connected halves – has been beneficial.

We also know that culture and wellbeing are linked – mutually, if not heavily, dependent on each other. People will not perform to the best of their ability, or ‘go the extra mile’ if they don’t feel the organisation values them as people and ‘cares’ for them. This is as applicable to existing employees as well as prospective talent. This is why creating a culture of openness and transparency really matters. The Mind the Workplace study by Mental Health America (MHA) in 2019 found employees who do not feel comfortable talking about their stress to a supervisor often experience negative consequences, including sleep troubles, job dissatisfaction, and lower levels of confidence, motivation, and presenteeism.

This leads me to think – if wellbeing is crucial to maintaining a positive culture, how can we better integrate wellbeing into day-to-day business, and the entire employee experience? From acquisition to ongoing development. How do we make it more quantifiable and measurable? How do we normalise conversations around mental health – and truly give transparent and open opportunities for leaders and employees to give their perspective and talk about their challenges?

For some, the perception of ‘wellbeing’ remains a token chat with a line manager. A reluctant meditation during lunch. Or, at worse, it’s buried in an onboarding policy document.

But if we truly bring it into the core of what we do and appreciate its centrality to business, what could it look like? Increasingly, companies are finding ways to successfully and cost-efficiently promote better brain health in the workplace by creating a culture that values mental health needs and providing support without stigma (Forbes, 2019).

Ensuring the wellbeing of your people can lead to greater engagement and in turn drive business performance, innovation, attraction and so much more. If this is the case, shouldn’t the wellness of the workforce be a KPI for business leaders, investors and analysts? One that gets just as much attention as the financial metrics like Earning Per Share or Return on Capital Employed? After all, when having a health check in our personal lives, it combines physiological elements (blood sugar, body mass, blood pressure etc) and psychological elements (positivity, purpose, stress, mindfulness etc). Why shouldn’t it be the same for business?

What, then, would a psychological health-check look like for a business? Carol Ryff’s psychological wellbeing model (1989) provides some areas for reflection and consideration – including a sense of purpose, positive relationships and autonomy. These things are classed as key measures of wellbeing so let’s apply these to a business context.

Make connections between business and personal purpose

Organisations spend a huge amount of time developing and crafting their purpose; their reason for being. But if they are to truly ensure a mentally healthy workforce, it's crucial to find ways to connect the company purpose to personal purpose. There have to be commonalities between why the company exists and what drives employees, their contribution, and what really fulfils them.

This is why companies should strive to be authentic, open, and make sure that their purpose has meaning. It must be something their people can get behind, be proud of, and has real impact on the world around them. Involving employees across the business in bringing the purpose to life, translating it to make it relevant to them and their role is vital. This is where line manager support really makes a difference, and leaders can embed the purpose in the conversations they have with employees.

Empower people to achieve their potential

If we foster a culture of continuous learning and personal growth, and push all line managers and senior leaders to encourage the expression of new ideas in everyone, we unlock the potential of the business as a whole. Individuals that feel a sense of progression through knowledge acquisition or recognition of their ideas feel happier – and contribute to the overall performance of the business. A rethink of the traditional learning approach to one of recognising and embedding everyday moments could shift perceptions and make learning part of the fabric of daily work, rather than a course that happens once a year.  

Self-determination is key

If we work in a culture that habitually – and methodologically – encourages the embracing of autonomy, there are considerable benefits. A more self-determining workforce is better able to regulate the right behaviours from within themselves, navigate external pressures more effectively, and better embrace accountability. To achieve this, line managers need to ensure employees feel empowered to be autonomous and make the right decisions, without fear of criticism.

Supporting employees to achieve mastery

Providing an environment where employees are supported to get competent at what they do (‘I can do what is asked of me’) and eventually achieve mastery (‘I’ve got this’) is important. It ensures that employees have the confidence to build their skills and ultimately be the best they can be, taking on more complex tasks. It means they will feel more accomplished to take on tasks, and something which in turn is passed to peers. 

Foster a sense of community

To create a sense of community in the workplace, we need to feel like we are part of something. In order to feel a sense of belonging we need to have strong and positive connections and bonds with colleagues, line managers, leaders. This extends beyond individuals to the entity we are part of so it feels a natural part of our identity, something we make an association with e.g. “I’m an IBM’er”.

Let’s reimagine wellbeing…

Even here, in this briefest of unpickings, we can start to acknowledge the need to think about the psychological health of a business and its people, rather than just its financial health. Pursuing a more systematic, rigorous approach and identifying the elements that truly shape the culture and fabric of an organisation could deliver extraordinary results – both at an individual and company level.

But to do all of this, many of us will need to take a step back and examine what we are doing well, what we should be measuring and evaluating. In our own organisations, we might need a wholesale revisioning of the day-to-day working definition of ‘wellbeing’ itself. A rebrand. A rethink. A reimaging. But, once done, just think about what it could do for your organisation.

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