Wellbeing at work: Cutting through the bullshit…

Apologies for the break last week – turns out that coming up with a new topic every week is actually pretty hard – and there have now been over 65 blogs (stretching over a 14 months). Hits are steadily increasing too – the site just got its 5000th hit and averages about 30 a day. If you like the blog, please consider recommending it to others, or just ‘liking’ it on Facebook (here) or retweeting entry notifications (you can follow me on Twitter here).

So, this week, I thought I’d write about something I actually know something about: workplace wellbeing. I wrote and published a book on it about five years ago (available here) and subsequently spent a year designing a large wellbeing program for Ernst & Young. Given that many of you actually work for organisations, many of which probably give lip service to the idea of ‘wellbeing’, I thought it might be interesting to distill some of the main ideas into the blog.

So let’s start with wellbeing. It’s a word that’s bandied about a lot these days. Sometimes it’s interchanged with ‘health’, but most of the time when organisations use the word, they’re referring to both the operational functioning of the organisation itself (something they think they have a good handle on), and something about the individual that’s maybe related to performance. Yup, wellbeing as applied to the individual gets pretty murky. Wellbeing is, put most simply, how well a person (or organisation) is functioning across a variety of domains. The problem is that only a few domains are usually considered and, as we’ll see, they’re often the wrong ones.

Man holding stack of paperwork with hand on calculator with long

When it comes to understanding wellbeing, it needs to be considered multidimensionally; that is, from a variety of angles and taking into account a large number of variables. This is because there’s actually a lot to it. For individuals, wellbeing is usually associated with health (physical and mental), so the usual organisational response to the issue of workplace wellbeing is to offer a subsidised gym membership, some blood pressure checks, and maybe access to an employee assistance program. Sadly, these opt-in attempts are usually only made use of by people who don’t really need them (those who take advantage of gyms and other wellbeing initiatives are usually reasonably healthy and looking to increase their health, whereas those who really need the help don’t usually ask for it), and don’t tend to actively increase a person’s understanding of his or her physical and psychological health, or motivate improvement. Worse, as important as health is for a person’s wellbeing, it’s not the only contributor to wellbeing. In fact, according to Professor Ilmarinen, formerly of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, who developed the Work Ability model (see below), workplace wellbeing includes physical and mental health, skills and competence, values, attitudes and motivation, work environment and management, and the influence of friends, family and the close community.

The Work Ability model itself deserves a brief side mention. Developed longitudinally over 30 years by the Finnish government, in an attempt to address the difficulties of supporting an ageing population, this multidimensional, predictive model can be used to predict the risk of a person leaving the workforce prematurely. It also recognises that people have different work-based motives at different stages in their lives and careers. By assessing a person’s Work Ability, it’s possible to identify the factors that are reducing his or her wellbeing, and then to intervene to redress those inadequacies. When applied correctly, the Work Ability model should allow people to remain in the workforce for longer, and remain effective, productive and, above all, satisfied in their work throughout their working life.

Fundamental to the Work Ability model is the identification of a wide variety of factors that influence a person’s wellbeing within a work context. As mentioned above, this is more than just health (although health is a very important factor). Wellbeing includes a person’s abilities and skills, his or her values, the workplace environment and internal relationships, and relationships outside of the workplace. You’ll note that only one of those factors is in the direct control of the employer (workplace environment) and, tellingly, most employers do not acknowledge that a large proportion of a person’s wellbeing, productivity, and likelihood of remaining within the organisation, are dependent on factors external to the workplace.

So let’s take a step back and look at notions of organisational and individual wellbeing as held by many modern organisations.¬†What is a well organisation? Typically, the answer to will depend on who you ask within the organisation. The C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc.) will probably tell you that a ‘well’ organisation is one that is solvent, looked on favourably by the market, has a good reputation (at least in financial circles and among their customer base), isn’t attracting the ire of the media, and that is has a strong financial outlook. If pressed, they might mention something about values and employee engagement but, for the most part, employees are considered replaceable, even in organisations who operate in intangibles (like knowledge, R&D and ideas development). In my book (published in 2006) I pointed out that organisations who had reacted to the economic instabilities of the late 80s by embracing economic rationalism (and downsizing their workforces to reduce costs) seldom recovered financially. Sadly, when the GFC occurred a few years ago, many organisations repeated the same fundamental error: get rid of the people who actually do the work (because that’s easy) and focus on the economists’ idea of a healthy organisation: one that has a strong three-month profit margin.

Frequently, alongside downsizing, are attempts to increase worker productivity. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that in this arena, employee wellbeing is considered a productivity perk. Productivity is surprisingly difficult to define, but usually organisations will attempt to calculate it by the number of widgets produced per employee per hour – a formula that falls down immediately in most organisations that don’t actually produce widgets. Again, despite 40+ years of good research (by psychologists) on the factors that are most motivating in the workplace (hint, it’s not all about money), the majority of attempts to increase employee productivity come down to stick and carrot (neither of which are particularly effective). Unfortunately, stick and carrot approaches (although potentially effective in the short term) usually decrease motivation, increase stress, reduce engagement, increase dissatisfaction, and encourage employee turnover. Effectively, insisting that employees do more (often with less), even alongside “incentives”, makes it that much more likely that the effective workers will leave, and the ineffective ones will stay (and become less effective). Interestingly, Henry Ford discovered (all the way back in the 1920s) that there was a tangible limit to the number of hours a worker could produce widgets effectively, without making expensive mistakes (about eight – but in the modern, information-based world, it’s actually more like six hours). Actually, employee productivity probably boils down the effectiveness of an employee’s work (the quantity and quality of what he or she gets done in a day), how motivated he or she is to work well, and whether he or she is motivated to stay with the organisation (of course these three variables are strongly correlated).

It’s sad that actual productivity is often confused for organisational bullshit. Thus, it’s common for these “productivity incentives” to be wrapped up in the wellbeing bow. ‘Perks’ like subsidised gym memberships, health insurance, workplace medicals and EAP don’t increase wellbeing because (as I mentioned before) the people who need them aren’t likely to use them, and those who don’t need them don’t need them. Worse, when these ‘perks’ exist alongside workplace practices that include line-of-sight management, lack of work flexibility, poor communication or transparency, intensive time demands, high-pressure roles (without support), lack of managerial support, institutionalised cultures, “make money at any cost” values, and “you belong to us” attitudes, they are less than meaningless. Sadly, many organisations dump this crap on their employees and pretend it’s for their own good.

So if wellbeing is a tad more complex than most HR departments would like to admit, what can organisations do to enhance individual wellbeing (and, as a nice side effect, increase productivity, reduce turnover, and enhance loyalty)? A great start is to recognise that organisations are (at their simplest) collections of human beings, and thus that they will be more effective when the people that comprise them are effective. Human beings are most effective when their basic needs are met, including being able to work in a way that they find satisfying (typically a blend of physical and mental health (in order to be able to function), skills development, challenge matched to skill, feeling that they’re doing something worthwhile (values alignment), working in an environment that isn’t detrimental to health, feeling supported by and included in the organisation, and the ability to ‘balance’ work with other important non-work activities and relationships). Thus, if an organisation is concerned with their employees’ wellbeing, they need to encourage their employees to look at the factors that influence their ability to work well, and create conditions to make behavioural change (where it’s required) more likely – remembering that humans don’t like to change, and will only do so if it’s easy and there’s some sort of perceived payoff. One of the great features of the Work Ability model (and the system I was developing at Ernst & Young) is the ability to assess employee ‘Work Ability scores’ and to identify not only the areas where people are at greatest risk (e.g., health, workplace environment, etc.), but particular ‘at risk’ groups or profiles within the organisation – allowing HR departments to focus on factors that are the most broken, and increase wellbeing (and consequently, productivity) for employees most at risk of leaving the organisation (usually because of poor health). Using this model, instead of simply offering gym subsidies, an organisation might encourage healthier eating in and out of the office, make it easier for people to leave their desks to exercise, train managers to encourage healthy activities, and to actively establish a culture of physical and mental health at work.

Some organisations have made this transition. Although not perfect by any measure, Google realises that everything that Google does is dependent on the effectiveness of its employees. As such, great pains are taken to encourage wellbeing from a wide variety of viewpoints – from healthy, free food, to encouraged nap times, to an enforced 20% of time spent on whatever an employee wants to work on. Consequently, although there are probably plenty of clock watchers at Google, most employees report feeling engaged, supported, included, and satisfied (with a good chance of consequent high Work Ability scores). They’re also substantially more productive than a typical organisation’s employees, and Google profits from this.

So, take-home message? It’s time that organisations stopped treating employee wellbeing as a perk and, instead focused on a multidimensional model of wellbeing as a core aspect of corporate effectiveness. By looking past the quarterly spreadsheet, and thinking about the organisation as a collection of (hopefully high-functioning) people rather than a collection of replaceable automatons, organisations can function better and, with attention, act in ways that aren’t inimical to wellbeing.

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