Our Wellbeing Wednesday focus today features Beverley Le Cuirot, a seasoned expert in the wellbeing industry, discussing the findings of a recent UK wellbeing research study and the shock waves it has sent through the industry.
It is fair to say that the focus on workplace wellbeing has intensified more in recent weeks than in decades. This has been largely due to the study conducted by Dr William Fleming of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, and media interpretation including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Fortune, and HR Magazine. The coverage has stirred significant concern amongst researchers, business and HR leaders, practitioners, and industry pundits, alike.
It is reported that the findings suggest that whilst wellbeing (or perhaps we should say individual wellness) programmes, as traditionally implemented, might work for certain people, they have minimal impact on employee wellbeing and therefore may not be as effective as anticipated in addressing the systemic issues that often breed stress in the first place.
Having studied and worked in the wellbeing industry for 20 years, publishing pivotal content, promoting wellbeing practitioners, implementing workplace programmes, and guiding corporate clients on workplace strategies, with an additional 25 years before that in international leadership roles, I am compelled to dive deeper into these discussions.
The study, involving 46,336 workers across 233 organisations, compared participants in individual-level wellbeing interventions like mindfulness apps, stress management and resilience workshops, to non-participants. Surprisingly, no significant difference in wellbeing was found. This challenges the effectiveness of these interventions in responding to job demands, and while experts have questioned the study’s methodological limitations and data age (2014 – 2018), it undeniably highlights a point we have been emphasising for years; the importance of addressing the underlying causes of workplace distress, burnout, and related challenges.
Real change requires organisations to listen to employees and address systemic cause.
Businesses have been investing heavily in workplace wellness initiatives, with the goal of creating a healthier, happier, and more productive workforces. Whilst these programmes will undoubtedly offer support to the individuals who earnestly use them, it is fair to say they do not address the real issues, such as inadequate resources, workload overload, or toxic management. Interventions of themselves will do little to address the dissatisfaction among employees if the stress is caused by the workplace itself. Real change requires organisations to listen to employees and address systemic cause.
It is certainly possible for individuals to enforce boundaries to protect their wellbeing. The differentiator is when employees feel able to use their voice to ask for what they need and when leaders in an organisation listen and provide appropriate support.
A Holistic Approach
Creating a thriving work environment requires a holistic approach to wellbeing, encompassing compassionate leadership, a culture of trust and respect, open communications, fair pay, inclusion, and the ongoing assessment of factors such as manageable workloads, protected personal time policies, efficient processes, clear priorities, adequate resources, supportive management styles, skilled and empathetic colleagues, and employee needs.
If organisational culture, structures, and systems are contributing to burnout, stress, and employee dissatisfaction, that is where the focus of the workplace wellbeing strategies needs to start.
Time to Talk: Listening to Employee Voices
Tomorrow’s Time to Talk Day highlights the importance of encouraging employees to speak up, and actively listening when they say they are struggling or stressed. Employee feedback is an invaluable resource for identifying the root causes of stress in the workplace. Rather than simply assuming the wellness incentives will be beneficial, employers should actively engage with their workforce to identify and address stressors.
Servant Leadership vs Self-Serving Leadership
Servant leadership, where leaders prioritise serving their employees, is not a new concept, I first experienced the benefits of this more than 40 years ago. It will undoubtedly support employee wellbeing. Employees will believe this when we listen more than we talk, when we encourage and support their efforts, big or small, and when we are responsive to their needs to help them accomplish their goals. When they are our focus, they will know they are part of a team and that we have their back.
The recent report by Mental Health UK confirms that burnout is a rapidly growing concern for individuals, workplaces, and communities. Alarming statistics show 1 in 5 employees absent from work with stress and 91% experiencing extreme stress at work, and industry experts opine that the UK risks being a ‘burnt-out nation’ due to poor mental health.
Finally recognised by the World Health Organisation in 2019, burnout demands proactive strategies. Solutions involve balancing individual habit changes with organisational support, control, and a sense of purpose and meaning in work.
Investing in Training and Education
The Fleming study findings suggest that most leaders are never educated and trained on how to support the health and wellbeing of those they lead.
Ongoing education is crucial. Leaders need training in supporting employee wellbeing, and employees should be empowered with the time management and emotional intelligence skills to manage stress. Measuring progress and adapting initiatives based on employee feedback are essential for a successful wellbeing programme.
The Right Balance
It is no longer enough to simply offer wellness interventions. A systemic change is needed to address workload issues, oppressive leadership, and lack of resources. Wellbeing must be woven into the fabric of organisational values and daily practices.
When employees are constantly under pressure, working long hours, and always on call, one-off wellbeing interventions are not enough. Not only that, but they may also be counterproductive in adding an additional pressure to an already full workday. What employees really need is a workplace that takes their wellbeing seriously, and a culture that treats their physical and mental health as a top priority, not as an optional extra.
A Paradigm Shift
Workplace wellbeing and the effectiveness of wellbeing initiatives are real and can be valuable. Nevertheless, despite the validity of workplace wellbeing, there is a need for a significant change in how it is approached and understood. The time has come for a paradigm shift in its evolution.
Organisational issues require organisational solutions, and rather than relying on generic solutions, employers should focus on listening to employees, identifying, and eradicating stressors, creating a culture of wellbeing, investing in training, and continuously measuring and adapting.
Beverley Le Cuirot FRSPH (main picture) is the Founder of WellBeing World, WellBeing At Work, Leaders in WellBeing, and the global awareness events, World WellBeing Week and World WellBeing At Work Week. She is committed to promoting personal, corporate and societal wellbeing and hosts a membership body for health and wellbeing practitioners and experts; she publishes WellBeing World magazine, now online; and has created the WellBeing At Work platform which provides consultancy services to organisations with a focus on employee and workplace wellbeing to create positive working environments and purposeful, meaningful work for all.