Why Wellbeing at Work isn’t Working and How it Can

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Over at City AM, William Turvill and Hayley Kirton wrote a compelling piece on current stress rates among bankers in London. Talking about recent research by MetLife, they report:

“40% of financial institution decision makers think their job is extremely stressful, with two-thirds (67 percent) considering resigning in the next year if their stress levels do not improve.”

The problem is of course not confined to the City. We can blame Brexit or whatever and, sure, that’s causing deep uncertainty and upheaval. But, from the perspective of my coaching practice, stress at work has been begging us to pay more attention to it for quite some time now. Global markets, the emergence of hand-held technologies, and the mushrooming of ways via which people can be accessed are all contributing to people blurring the boundaries between life and work. We’re becoming a culture that expects itself always to be on.

And companies know there’s a problem. In response to which, they’re hiring wellbeing experts with the aim of bringing coping skills and strategies on a whole raft of fronts. Mindfulness, for example, has become popular with some businesses running meditation sessions during lunch hours. Resilience coaching is teaching folks how to build their mental robustness. One to one talk therapy is available for many via their private health care providers.

What’s not to love?

But here’s the worrying bit:

It seems not everyone who could benefit from the support on offer avails themselves of it.

70 percent of those surveyed by MetLife believed that admitting to problems would damage their career prospects. And only 18 percent said their organization had a positive attitude to mental health issues.

A big concern, of course, is fear of reprisal.

Talk to people, and you’ll hear them list out the possible consequences of being out about being stressed. Lower performance ratings, smaller bonuses, poorer promotion prospects all get cited. And, with up to 20,000 job cuts looming in the City, the biggest fear of all is of ending up on the redundancy list as an easy way of being sidelined.

As any good coach, therapist, Occupational Health or HR person will shout at this point, the issue is that there’s still an enormous mental health stigma in the UK. That, of course, extends way beyond the realms of work. It’s still too easy not to understand, to marginalize, or – worse – to poke fun at people who for whatever reason are suffering from any mood or behavioral disturbance.

But while there’s a massive need across the board to do whatever we can to remedy this, I don’t believe it’s the whole answer to improving the take-up of wellbeing investment.

Instead, I advise business clients who are intent on creating wellbeing within their businesses to take a big step back, and reframe their approach to the challenge in the following four ways:

Four reframes to transform the ROI of your business’s wellbeing spend

From individual to cultural

The initiatives for which you’re currently paying are great. Don’t stop the mindfulness classes, or fire the coaches, or whatever. They can all, of course, bring immense help to the smart people who have for a moment lost their mojo or worse, and are willing to be open to the support.

But at the same time, take an honest look at how your culture creates illness rather than wellness. You know the kind of thing. The jobs that have conflicting reporting lines. The CEO sending emails at all hours of the day and expecting an immediate response. The boss finding it necessary to interrupt their worker’s thinking time with a, for them, urgent request.

These set ups and behaviors perpetuate stress. If you’re serious about wellbeing, you’ll change them. You’ll think instead about the kind of attributes that contribute to a healthy culture, and you’ll begin a program of bringing them to life.

From remedial to proactive

In writing this article, my trigger was concern about stress and how to fix it. And for many companies, the thing that prompts them to buy in wellbeing support is the same.

And, of course, if you have a stress at work problem, address it.

But what if you changed your paradigm away from trying to address illness, and towards creating wellness.

What if you didn’t look at things through the lens of trying to bring all the people in your business up to some average level of health and functioning? What if you dared to think they were worth supporting to be at the top of the wellbeing distribution curve and to develop within your business the kind of healthy environment in which your people could thrive?

How would you you focus your wellbeing budget in that scenario?

From intervention to strategic issue

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to consider wellbeing as a soft, nice-to-have in your business. Something that has no strategic importance to its performance.

I say this for several reasons.

First, people are in general becoming sicker.

All of which says to me that the costs of healthcare provision from both public and private sector are set to increase, putting possible strain on taxes and premiums alike.

But beyond the cost, there’s a huge business benefit to organizations whose people are well.

We’ve known for some time that employee engagement correlates positively with business results. Now, it turns out that wellbeing does too. Put simply, people who experience themselves as being in a positive state of wellbeing, and are engaged in their work, do extraordinary work for their companies.

Which to my mind is all the argument you need to put wellbeing on your company’s executive team’s agenda.

From being focussed on employees to starting at the top

Change starts and ends with leadership. Without the buy-in of the people at the very top, you kid yourselves that sustainable organizational wellbeing is possible.

And I don’t mean lip-service buy-in. I mean heartfelt buy-in.

Actions talk louder than words ever can.

For that reason, I advise senior business teams to review their own individual and collective wellbeing ahead of, or in tandem with, any other wellbeing activity that’s going on.

You’re at the top of your game, or you should be.

You wouldn’t expect Mo Farah to turn up for a race on a few hours sleep, weeks of multi-tasking and a diet of fags, pizza and endless cans of diet Coke. Why are you expecting yourself to be able to pull epic shit out of the bag when that’s exactly what you’re doing?

So, as you’re approving the budget for the next set of mindfulness classes, turn the spotlight on yourself and your leadership colleagues and ask, how well are we? How ready are we really on any given day or in any given week to do our absolute best? And how do we think more holistically about our own health and wellbeing in a way that means our performance is not just optimal, but sustainably so?

Moving forward

In the next weeks and months, wellbeing is something I’m going to be writing and saying much more about. Sign up here for updates to make sure you don’t miss out on the conversation.


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