Wellbeing at work (Part 2): Taking control…

I’m still not quite decided whether I’ll continue this blog on a weekly or a fortnightly basis – recently I’ve come up with quite a few new ideas, so we’ll see how things go. You can help though! Let me know whether you’d really like a weekly blog, and feel free to send me ideas (comment below or email)…

Last time I wrote about wellbeing at work. I pointed out that wellbeing is more than a subsidised gym membership and that many employers are ignoring those most at risk of poor wellbeing and workplace exit. I introduced the concept of ‘Workability’, a multidimensional model of workplace wellbeing that, applied properly, can increase workplace satisfaction and wellbeing, and reduce turnover. Pretty much a win-win. Finland (the country that developed the workability concept) has applied this concept countrywide, to reduce the problems (and costs) associated with looking after an ageing population. Outside of Scandinavia, Workability has been applied piecemeal, including in a few organisations in Australia but, for the most part, employers see employee health and wellbeing as a perk, they just don’t get the win-win bit.

IT guy's vacation

Put most simply, the win-win comes down to healthier, more satisfied workers. They win for sure, but the organisation wins because its people (for the most part) want to turn up, are more productive when they do, and are more likely to stay with the organisation. Amazingly (because this is a concept that many organisations have failed to grasp), it’s really expensive when an employee leaves an organisation (no matter what the reason). It’s not just the cost of advertising for a new position, it’s the downtime, the strain on other employees taking up the slack, the demoralisation of that person’s workmates, the training costs of bringing a new employee up to speed, the zero productivity of pretty much all employees for their first month of employment and, the biggy, the intangible knowledge that the worker takes with him or her when leaving (there are all sorts of great anecdotes out there about people being forced to take redundancy packages only to be hired back a year later at consultant rates because they were the only ones who knew how to operate a crucial legacy system).

OK, so that’s the rehash. Sadly, many employers aren’t taking your wellbeing seriously – they honestly believe that offering a cheap(er) gym membership and some health insurance perks is enough. So, today, I’d like to write about what you can do to maximise your wellbeing at work when your employer doesn’t give a shit.

If you remember the Workability model from last week, it has five dimensions (or levels): health (and functional capacity); skills and competence; values, attitudes and motivation; workplace; and friends, family and community. You’ll note that only one of these five is about work itself, the rest are (to a greater or lesser degree) within the control of the employee. Also note that higher scores on each of these dimensions means a reduced risk of early workplace exit (i.e., increased likelihood of staying effective at work), and a greater level of independence and mobility following retirement. In other words, even when the workplace itself is shitty, there’s a lot you can do to increase your wellbeing independently of your employer. We’ll get to that shortly.

A quick aside. The stuff that happens at work is also important and I’m not going to neglect that – it’s just that you can’t necessarily rely on your employer to make it better. There are some things you can do, however, to encourage your employer to make your workplace more workable. I’ll tackle this in Part 3 (coming soon).

OK, onwards. The ‘ground floor’ of the workability model is health and functional capacity. This takes into account your physical health and mobility, your emotional wellbeing and your psychological stability, and accounts for about 30% of the variability in the model (i.e., 30% of your workability stems from your health). Some of your health is, undoubtedly, associated with your work environment – 19th-century miners died of lung problems from a horrible work situation, and no amount of healthy eating, regular exercise or work-life balance was going to do anything about this! In the modern world, however, the workplace is seldom as toxic (although we’d like to think that it is), and there’s plenty you can be doing to increase your resilience. Let’s start with basic physical health. Long hours and stress make it hard to get to the gym, and it’s easier to grab some quick takeaway than a healthy meal. But let’s look at motive. Your aim (most likely) is to be effective in your work. Making exercise and healthy diet a lower priority compromises that effectiveness (although you don’t notice this at the time). Making your choice as simple as “my motive to go for a 20-minute walk at lunchtime” or “my motive to get a healthier sandwich rather than a burger for lunch” is “to be more effective in my work”, removes a lot of the other bullshit – all the “I shoulds” and other guilt-related ‘motives’. You might not notice a change for the first couple of weeks, but you will notice a change.

The same can be said for mental and emotional health. Stress is the biggest contributor to our ineffectiveness. I say stress, but I actually mean our reaction to stressors (environmental and internal factors that upset us or increase our physiological arousal). Managing stress can be looked at from two perspectives: reducing its impact, and its interpretation. The first is the traditional way – pretty much any stress-management workshop you’ve been sent to will be about the importance of a stress-management technique (like breathing or meditation or yoga). This is fine, and these things are really important parts of your day (so yes, make time for a 20-minute meditation – I’ve included a cut-down version here) but your reaction to stressors is pretty much always mediated by your interpretation. Most of us have something or someone that/who’s so important to us that we would do almost anything to save it/him/her in a dangerous situation. Chances are that, in such a situation, your values would override the stress, to the point where you wouldn’t consider the unpleasant situation as stress because you’d be doing it for really important reasons. Subsequently, even though you went through a stressful experience, you wouldn’t have interpreted it as stress. Instead, more often than not, there’ll be a feeling of satisfaction, accomplishment and wellbeing – you did something difficult for a really good reason, and any suffering was incidental to your achievement. You didn’t ‘manage’ your stress so much as recognise the potentially stressful action as a necessity. It didn’t affect you in a negative way because you didn’t attend to it as something terrible.

OK, maybe you’re getting my point here. Stress is only stress when we perceive it as something that we don’t want, that is ‘bad’, or something we need to avoid. When we have sufficient motivation (usually because of a value – read here), we don’t need to avoid the ‘stressful’ situation. Instead, we willingly experience it in order to act in a values-congruent way, and accept any discomfort as a necessary part of the experience. Stress at work can, with some effort on your part, be mediated in the same way. Yes, learn to manage your breathing and take time out to meditate or do a yoga class, but also think about why you’re there. If your job is actually important to you, and you find any aspect of what you do meaningful, then focus on those elements during stressful intervals. Even if your job sucks, there’s probably a reason you’re still there (e.g., supporting your family, paying off your house, training for another position). With some thought, you’ll find a value that underpins your current situation and allows you to willingly experience temporary unpleasantness in service of something that’s important to you. This takes practise, and I’m going to write a lot more about this in a future (planned) blog – so stay tuned.

What about some of the other Workability dimensions? We’ve touched on health, and values and motivation, but two other important areas are skills and competency, and friends, family and community.

Your skills and competencies are what provide a lot of the challenge and interest in your life. Typically, when our challenge level is well below our skills we feel bored. Likewise, when challenge is higher than skill we feel scared. Ideally, we’re looking for a situation that balances skills with challenge. Most people think this is their employer’s responsibility. I reckon that it’s up to you. If you’re bored at work you have several options. You can ask your employer for training, different duties, mentoring, etc. You can find ways to be better at your job with or without your boss’s support (if that’s important to you). Or, if work really sucks, find a way to challenge yourself outside of work. For me, my main skills/challenge outside of the workplace is mountain biking (read why in a forthcoming post). It lets me challenge myself and develop new skills is a way that has nothing to do with work – and it provides a sense of worthwhile meaning to my life (even though it’s a meaningless activity – mmm irony).

Finally, what about friends, family and community? Some people involve themselves in their community. An ex-colleague of mine found most of her meaning by volunteering a lot of her time to a charity that helps with child literacy. She was able to justify the long hours and crappy environment of her work because it meant she could earn a decent salary that allowed her to contribute. If that’s not for you, how about going closer to home? Many of us allow work pressures to strain or devalue our friendships and family relationships. We don’t make time for the people who are important to us, and when we do spend time with them, we whinge about our work or, worse, use them as (hopefully virtual) punching bags for our stress. People who maintain a healthy amount time interacting with their friends and family are substantially more effective at work, mostly because they recognise that they have someone worthwhile in their lives. We are social animals and there are a lot of reasons (mostly evolved subsystems for tribal bonding) that we become crappy people (e.g., grumpy, misanthropic) when we’re isolated from other human beings (by choice or design).

OK. I’ve gone on enough for today. Let me summarise though. You wellbeing isn’t just your employer’s responsibility. In fact, a large majority of your wellbeing is based on factors that occur outside of the workplace and many of these factors are, at least partially, under your control. Wellbeing is largely about recognising and taking control of what you can, and not worrying too much about the rest (or finding reasons why it’s not as bad as you’d like to think). Remember that reducing your risk of early work departure means taking care of your wellbeing, meaning and satisfaction. You need to be complicit in this lifelong venture, and it’s not all about that subsidised gym membership…

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