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Ella Overshott

Pecan Partnership

Director

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Are we taking employee wellbeing too far?

With growing concerns about the impact of hybrid working on connection, team management and culture, is the focus on individual wellbeing being prioritised over that of the needs of organisations and customers?
woman stretching on mountain top during sunrise: are we taking wellbeing too far?

During the pandemic and in its aftermath, leaders understandably put employees’ physical and mental health at the top of the priority list. 

Since the pandemic, 81% of workplaces have increased their focus on employee mental health and the trend seems set to continue. 

This growing emphasis on wellbeing at work has generally been regarded as ‘a good thing’. Indeed, we support a systematic and comprehensive approach to employee wellbeing. 

Are we meeting business needs?  

But, anecdotally and privately, leaders are confiding that they fear individual needs and preferences are being put ahead of team, business and customer needs. 

They share examples of employees refusing to come into the office. Of working hours that don’t work well for others. And people being unwilling to flex their personal commitments for the sake of the team.

Add to this the oft-quoted differences in the work expectations of different generations and we have a tension of unaddressed blockers to performance that leaders and managers are unsure how to solve. 

Fearful of losing good people, causing unrest in the team, further damaging mental health or even triggering grievances, these issues are being left unresolved. 

Team and organisational culture is built on the ‘unwritten rules’ that unconsciously guide people’s behaviour and decision making. Allowing new patterns of behaviour to take hold makes it even harder for leaders to take a deliberate, consistent approach to tackling performance challenges. And to create an environment where results are delivered in a healthy, thriving workplace.  

We have a tension of unaddressed blockers to performance

Are productivity and performance being neglected? 

Yes and no. A big challenge for leaders is the vast range of scenarios that they face with managing across their teams, whilst also delivering work themselves. 

On the one hand, there continues to be a focus on employee wellbeing support. But, on the other, excessive workloads and working long hours go unchallenged. 

New mental health research from Deloitte indicates that 63% of respondents are experiencing at least one characteristic of burnout. This is an increase from 51% in 2021. 

Presenteeism is the largest contributor, where people work in spite of illness, so we have certainly not become a ‘work-shy’ nation. 

With demands to deliver vast transformation programmes alongside complex ‘business as usual’, effective wellbeing support is essential to keep people healthy and productive over the long-term. 

And it is a wise investment. For every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, employers could get back £5.30 in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Excessive workloads and working long hours go unchallenged

What are we missing?

We are in danger of using remote or hybrid working as an excuse for not engaging team members fully and building healthy, performing teams. 

According to Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2023 report, only 23% of employees are thriving at work. With 59% quiet quitting and 18% loud quitting. They found that engagement has 3.8 times as much influence on employee stress as work location. 

In other words, what people experience in their everyday work – their feelings of involvement and enthusiasm – matters more in reducing stress than where they are sitting. 

Differences in employees’ productivity and performance has been a feature in teams long before the pandemic. 

Leaders building trust with their teams, understanding what makes different people tick, staying connected with them as their circumstances and ambitions change, has always been an essential part of motivating performance. 

No location can ‘fix’ poor management, and the office alone has no magic to create a great organisational culture. Likewise, tick-box employee wellbeing activities won’t get to the root cause of a performance issue or necessarily lead to increased performance .

So the problem is not that we’re focusing too much on wellbeing – it’s essential for sustainable performance. Nor is work location the problem. Bringing everyone back into the office will damage productivity and engagement and likely put future recruitment of talent at risk. 

We need to reset the employer/employee relationship. We need to establish clear and fair principles for working in a remote or hybrid world. In a way which sets reasonable expectations for all parties and holds employers and employees to account.

No location can ‘fix’ poor management

Four recommendations to reset the psychological contract

Coined by Denise Rousseau, a psychological contract is “an unwritten set of expectations between the employee and the employer. It includes informal arrangements, mutual beliefs, common ground and perceptions between the two parties.”

This is best done at an organisational level initially. This will allow leaders to take a consistent approach and deliberately create the desired culture. Local conversations in teams and with individuals can follow as needed, in particular as part of the onboarding process.  

1. Run a mini culture review to understand what’s working and what’s not

Fully unpack expectations of leaders and employees. It’s easy to slip into stereotypes and make assumptions about people, whether they be based on age or any other characteristic. Involving employees or representative groups will help engage everyone with the reset.

2. Establish (or refresh) principles for remote, hybrid or flexible working

Ensure they are outcome focused. Give real-life examples of what is and isn’t considered reasonable for the employer and employee to expect. 

3. Invest in people managers at every level

Only 38% of HR respondents in the CIPD Health and wellbeing at work survey think line managers in their organisation are confident to have sensitive conversations. 

Managers have the biggest day-to-day impact on individuals’ experience of work. Strengthen their capability to build high performing teams, having effective dialogue about the interplay between wellbeing and work, and holding people to account for their part in the contract.

4. Brush up your approach to change

When change is initiated, designed, implemented and embedded well, it can be an enriching and valuable experience for people. Too often change is still run ‘top down’ with scant understanding of the impact on managers’ capacity or the operational implications for others. 

Consider running Colleague Journey Mapping or Day In The Life workshops to fully appreciate the impact of planned change from employees’ perspective. 

Managers have the biggest day-to-day impact on individuals’ experience of work

The right culture

Good employee wellbeing practices remain ‘a good thing’ but must not be seen as the golden ticket to performance. Nor is hard work the enemy of good health. 

In the right culture, meaningful work can bring enormous satisfaction. It can also enhance our sense of wellbeing and help us flourish at work.  

But great people leadership capability remains at the heart of healthy performance. As it was before the pandemic and will continue to be for years to come.

Do you need to reset the psychological contract between your workplace and your employees? Or do you risk running into the problems that emerge when expectations are misaligned? 

Find out more about Pecan’s Hybrid Working Refresh and skills development in our Hub.

You can read more by Ella Overshott here.

Author Profile Picture
Ella Overshott

Director

Read more from Ella Overshott