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Alys O'Neill

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If you’re talking about wellbeing, you’re having the wrong conversation

Employee wellbeing may be a hot topic at the moment, but the need for programmes and policies often highlights underlying deficiencies within an organisation.

With more people taking sick leave than ever in the UK, employee wellbeing remains a hot topic. And while organisations now offer a range of policies and programmes from subsidised yoga sessions to private therapy, many argue that they are not doing enough to prevent and solve the issue at hand. 

Employees were already feeling the strain as businesses made unprecedented redundancies during the pandemic, and a large number of people experienced a period of traumatising unemployment or furlough. 

Now growing pressures to return to the office, amidst numerous other external crises, are having a further impact on wellbeing that organisations may be failing to recognise. The question remains whether traditional wellbeing programmes simply highlight underlying deficiencies within an organisation.

In truth, wellbeing initiatives that focus on addressing the symptoms may simply be sticking plasters – absolving businesses from having to take meaningful action to tackle the root causes. 

If companies take the time to identify and unpack the stressors (including the behaviours that cause them), create connection, offer clarity, and focus on what’s in their sphere of control rather than offering holistic lifestyle advice, then they’ll be in a better position to address the stress and burnout epidemic – and to create better places to work.

People need the support of their team leaders to ensure they have a sense of agency

Creating a safe space

Current societal and geopolitical issues have created a sense of despondency over the future, and this combined with the cost-of-living crisis has compounded demotivation in the workforce. There is also without a doubt a crisis of connection in today’s society, as a result of the isolation that many are feeling. 

Yet employees often don’t feel safe to openly speak about their personal wellbeing if they feel their jobs and financial stability are on the line. This is where line managers have a critical role to play as connectors and role models of the right behaviours. 

People need the support of their team leaders to ensure they have a sense of agency. Managers must create an environment of psychological safety so that all employees feel empowered to share their concerns, speak openly about wellbeing, or say what they really think without the risk of judgement. 

Addressing organisational issues like poor resourcing, a lack of support, prolonged disconnection, and lack of clarity over how an employee can contribute to an organisation’s success are key to creating greater wellbeing. 

When people are supported, fulfilled, and understand their purpose at work, they feel uplifted, more motivated and are generally more productive to boot. 

Building community and connection

But how do companies strike a balance between ensuring employees feel valued as part of something bigger, while not coming across as paternalistic and prescriptive? 

If organisations want to engage their people in an authentic way and create a sense of community, they need to identify beliefs and causes everyone can rally around, give employees a voice and act on the promises they make. And they need to understand that a company culture developed in 2017 is unlikely to still apply in 2023 and beyond – especially as the organisation tries to deliver on its business goals.

People ‘feel’ it when the workplace environment isn’t right. Behaviours do change and evolve over time, but best practice may fall by the wayside in times of uncertainty.

Teams need to be able to have open conversations about stress and workload – before it escalates. Being honest and clear with employees about where the business is headed and creating transparency increases trust amongst colleagues, which can also go a long way towards improving wellbeing and deepening a sense of connection. And poor and toxic behaviours need to be dealt with in the moment, rather than ignored and left to build. 

However, we must recognise that many managers themselves are feeling the strain – and will need support to build their own resilience in the current climate. They need to be given the resources, tools and time to manage change from the start, both for their teams and for themselves.

Success lies in a shared vision and giving leaders and managers the right tools

Taking personal responsibility

Fostering a greater sense of employee wellbeing isn’t solely the responsibility of an employer. It’s important for the employee to feel empowered to advocate for their personal wellbeing too.

That’s why it’s so important that line managers create a safe, empathetic environment that makes those conversations possible. If they have done so, the onus is then on the individual to ensure other people – specifically their leaders – understand what has the potential to cause stress and what they need to do to create a more fulfilling and satisfying working environment.

The recipe for success

Businesses that thrive during periods of uncertainty have strong cultures and have successfully fostered a sense of belonging – a key building block for creating environments in which people can thrive. 

Wellbeing policies are significant but shouldn’t be prescribed in isolation, certainly not without a rigorous strategy to create a culture of support, safety, and resilience. 

Issues around resourcing and support can be tackled, but ongoing insight from employees is needed to identify and fix them. Asking people what matters to them, reassuring the team, and checking in and listening to what they have to say is a first step. What’s key is ensuring action is taken on employee feedback to reduce the causes of stress and anxiety. 

Ultimately, individual employee wellbeing programmes may have their heart in the right place, but they’re unlikely to address what’s really going on within the organisation and the investment currently being made in this space remains unbalanced. 

Success lies in a shared vision and giving leaders and managers the right tools and resources to manage change effectively and create a more fulfilling working environment for all, while tailoring the approach to the needs of the individual.

Interested in this topic? Read How to avoid ‘wellbeing wash’.

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