How much progress is really being made in workplace wellbeing? 

Why does the world of work seem to be edging ever more away from sustainable employee engagement – and physical and mental wellbeing as core to that? The preference seems to be for short-term, surface-level fixes, rather than long-term foundational level solutions. And never more so where workplace mental health and wellbeing is concerned.

Consider all the awareness days, mindfulness apps, resilience training, awareness training, mental health first aiders, training for line managers to spot the signs and signpost…The list goes on. While many – if not all – of these initiatives have their place, they’re arguably surface level solutions. And we all know what happened to the house that was built on sand…

the wellbeing and engagement correlation

There are enough robust studies out there, for years now, to evidence the link between physical and mental wellbeing and engagement. And, hence, the positive impact on the bottom line where a genuine wellbeing culture is in place. These studies come from the world of both practitioners and academics (Anthony-McMann et al.; CIPD 2012a; CIPD 2012b; MacLeod & Clarke, 2009; Schaufeli et al, 2008; to name just a few).

But all these studies seem to become lost amidst the need to put in place quick fixes; usually reactive, in response to whatever is happening in the wider world at the time that might be impacting employee mental health and wellbeing (the cost of living crisis representing a key one right now of course).

This, as opposed to proactively looking within, at the kind of systemic workplace issues that are proven to detrimentally impact employee mental health, wellbeing and, hence, commitment, motivation, emotional connection with the organisation (in other words, employee engagement). 

It’s all about the leadership…

Foundational level solutions demand a long-term, strategic focus. It’s about ensuring leaders – line managers and the senior exec team – have emotional intelligence. It’s about creating the conditions for trust, respect and purpose, so that people feel confident and equipped to contribute and challenge; helping to shape the things that really matter to business, to ask for help and for feedback without fear of retribution; and to have control and autonomy in their work.

For example, CIPD 2012a explores how sustainable employee engagement, tied to wellbeing, can be achieved through training managers around the competencies identified in their research, such as being open, fair and consistent, handling conflict and problems, sharing knowledge, providing clarity and guidance, building and sustaining relationships, and supporting career progression and development. Schaufeli et al, 2008 add that managers require these social leadership skills in their arsenal, but all too often are only armed with the technical skills to effectively deliver sustainable engagement.

but not all is about spotting signs & signposting…

Against this evidence-based backdrop, there are a lot of well-meaning guidelines out there for HR from official bodies, especially with regards to mental health, that seem to overlook all of this evidence.

Following the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) represents the latest to introduce mental health at work guidance. The goal is great – to have consistency between physical and mental health and safety. But the guidelines seem to suggest that the buck for all this stops with Occupational Health in terms of interventions, return-to-work programmes, management training and such like. The latter only extends as far as being trained to spot the signs of someone struggling and then signposting to them to help. This is a surface layer fix as opposed to cementing the long-term foundations for the future.

The competencies outlined by the CIPD involve supporting managers to be much better communicators. Yet recent research from the CIPR on ‘effective line manager communication’ finds that only 15% of line managers say communication training in their organisation is mandatory, yet 73% feel it’s a valued leadership skill.

This skill needs to go way beyond just cascading messages from the top (the usual view of internal communication). It’s about listening, ensuring two-way communication, reducing isolation and a feeling of ‘not being heard’. Line managers are ‘translators, funnels, collaborators and conductors’ (CIPR). They’re creators and facilitators of knowledge-sharing, continuous learning and psychologically safe (trust-based) environments, where people feel confident to contribute and challenge.

There will always be a need to spot the signs where an employee is struggling. But helping prevent people reaching that stage in the first place arguably deserves a lot more attention than it’s currently getting. It’s not as though the benefits to both people and business cannot be evidenced. The question is whether organisations – and the official bodies providing the guidelines – are willing to look to the long-term.

bite-sized podcast series: better wellbeing

For more on getting the foundations of workplace wellbeing right, have a listen to this new podcast series. It’s a series of six 15-min episodes which explore aspects such as storytelling, leadership communication and culture, and interviews with two SME owner/managers, including the co-founder of charity Minds@Work; a community of ‘leaders who are learners’, aiming to create workplaces that are life-enhancing.

Author: Suzanne Clarkson – Managing Director, Coach House Communications Ltd

Photo credit: Cottonbro

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