Many organisations are talking about workplace wellbeing. It is perhaps the current ‘must have’ feature of the employee engagement mix.
With high levels of mental ill-health impacting most organisations, similarly high degrees of change in almost every business and sector and the continued challenge of low employee engagement globally, it isn’t surprising to find organisations looking to solutions – and wellbeing may well seem to fit the bill.
The challenge for HR and leaders is not to simply do wellbeing, but to do it well - how to make wellbeing activities meaningful and impactful. How to get beyond free fruit and exercise classes, to genuine, systemic initiatives that will have a positive impact on all employees within the organisation.
What is wellbeing in the workplace?
First things first – what do we mean by wellbeing? The World Health Organisation describes wellbeing as each individual being able to realise their own potential, to be able to cope with the normal stresses of life and to be able to work productively and fruitfully and make a contribution to their community. It is also described as a dynamic state in which people can develop their potential – a balancing of body, mind and spirit.
When we talk about wellbeing in the work context, often people focus on that well known phrase ‘work-life balance’. The inherent challenge with this term is that it is binary; there is work and there is life, which we pitch as opposing sides of a single coin. For most of us, that isn’t really the case. Work and life are blurred, integrated.
Wellbeing is perhaps best thought of as something that encompasses many aspects; physical health, emotional health, mental health, nutritional health, social health and financial health. It's effectively the opposite of burnout. Employers can have a role to play in each of these elements in the workplace.
Wellbeing in the workplace: how to do it well
There are two main areas of focus for leaders and HR; helping people to stay well at work and supporting those who are not.
In relation to the former, there is much that organisations can do to keep people feeling good and functioning well. Research by the New Economics Foundation suggest five drivers for personal wellbeing; connecting with others, giving, taking notice, learning and being active. Encouraging more of each of these elements, building them into ways of working will help employees stay well at work.
In tackling ill health, HR need to ensure that managers know how to have spot the signs and symptoms of potential ill-health (especially mental health) and then how to have appropriate and sensitive conversations. This needs to be coupled with timely occupational health and supported return to work programmes.
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When it comes to workplace wellbeing, there is a huge spectrum of activity that takes place in practice. Some organisations are firmly in what I sometimes refer to as the ‘Zumba Zone’. They are offering activities and initiatives, but these are often around topics like exercise or mindfulness. In comparison, at the other end of the spectrum are those organisations taking a much more in-depth approach. These organisations tackle the systemic and structural issues that can impact on the wellbeing of their people. The latter is a much harder, much longer term place to play. That said, there is nothing wrong with offering fitness classes, free fruit and awareness-raising events. They all help to set the permission for the wellbeing conversation and can pave the way to changes in culture.
The wellbeing challenge
Employee wellbeing is a challenge for all organisations. So will this be the year that wellbeing goes mainstream and becomes a strategic priority? It is very much in the hands of HR to make the case. But if we do, our aim must be to move past the early, initiative stage, resist the instinct to approach it as a standalone project, and build it into the fabric of everything that we do.
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Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.