Building organisational wellbeing
While not so long ago mention of wellbeing barely occurred in business conversations, let alone in discussions round Board tables, now it’s encompassed in commercial conversations and is finding its way onto the agendas of meetings at the highest strategic levels.
What does wellbeing mean?
Ask ten senior leaders what they understand by building wellbeing in their organisations and you’re likely to get ten different answers. For some organisations it’s about providing free, or low-cost, health insurance. For others it will be about making fruit available or about encouraging people to walk up the stairs instead of taking the lift. For such organisations wellbeing is equivalent to a minimum level of physical health.
For yet others it’s about respecting health and safety provisions or about encouraging work-life balance, which is often interpreted as not working an excessive number of hours.
Little stress and a lot of contentment
Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, talks about wellbeing at work as having little stress and a lot of satisfaction and contentment, in organisations which are positive and which give hope. It seems to me that this goes some of the way to a robust definition, but it fails to acknowledge the role of achievement and fulfilment (for which a minimal level of stress might be a useful lever), feeling valued, a sense of belonging and connection, finding meaning and purpose, and having nourishing, constructive relationships with line managers and colleagues. The role of resilience also needs acknowledging (see more on resilience here ).
Relatively rarely do leaders talk about mental health. To the extent that they do, they tend to talk about stress – but many employers are wary of even mentioning the word for fear of putting ideas into people’s heads or becoming known for the stress in their workforces. The numbers of employees with depression, or at risk of depression or other issues around mental health are rarely known, articulated or addressed in employers’ wellbeing strategies. I notice too that wellbeing is sometimes subsumed under Corporate Social Responsibility, which might suggest that demonstrating concern for wellbeing is seen as a responsibility rather than a normal human concern or an issue that contributes to the bottom line.
The ROI – the Return on Investment
And here’s the rub: measuring the ROI of a workforce that has high levels of wellbeing is notoriously difficult. Wellbeing can be seen (but is not necessarily a factor) in high retention rates and discretionary effort, and can be felt or sensed in the climate in an office. It is closely, but not simply, linked to engagement levels (see more on the benefits here). Much easier is to observe the impact of low levels of wellbeing: low engagement and productivity levels, low rates of discretionary effort, high rates of turnover and absenteeism, high rates of employees ‘pulling sickies’.
What does building wellbeing mean for senior leaders?
A meaningful approach to wellbeing will go significantly beyond tactics and process – beyond the free hairdressing and the availability of salad in the cafeteria, beyond the free gym membership and even beyond the Employee Assistance Programmes. All these have their place but they are not enough.
Building and nurturing wellbeing has to be a way of being (albeit complemented by a set of actions) if it is to bring any significant results. It is being a manager or a leader who listens to their people, who enables the development of their strengths and the release of their potential, who recognises that who their employees are must come before demanding or requiring anything of them, who behaves with respect and integrity, who cares about the experience their people are having at work and who can marry this to the achievement of the business strategy. It is being a manager or leader who builds trust in their team or organisation and is trustworthy.
Who is responsible for building wellbeing?
Organisations which develop and implement wellbeing strategies need to consider who is responsible for wellbeing. Is it an HR responsibility, an occupational health responsibility, a health and safety responsibility, a compensation and benefits responsibility? The answer is that it is the responsibility of all these functions and more: it is the responsibility of all leaders, managers and peers. It is part of the organisational culture – how people are with each other. Wellbeing is everyone’s issue: it is systemic.
Coaching for wellbeing is valuable not only to release the potential of those who appear to have no wellbeing challenges – but need to work out how to maintain their wellbeing – but also to facilitate those to thrive who may be struggling with physical or mental or emotional challenges. The latter may need to learn how to take appropriate responsibility for their challenges, how to ask for help (especially difficult in organisations where such issues are brushed under the carpet) – and, critically, how to thrive despite those challenges.