It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?
Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.
Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:
- Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
- Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
- Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
- Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
- Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.
Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising
I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.
Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.
In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:
A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.
Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.
As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.
Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.
Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!
Creating a Feeling of Belonging
70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.
HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator
If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.
Remove the hassle
Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.
As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?