Wellbeing: Why now?

Written by Bradford Keen, Facilitate Magazine.

The article originally appears in Facilitate, in which Bradford Keen discusses wellbeing in the workplace and why organisations are now seeing the value of positive wellbeing in their employees.

“People want to take control over their health and they’ve reached a point where the current lifestyle and workplace offerings just don’t cut it anymore. They’re saying ‘this isn’t right and we need to fix it.’ Which is why Georgia Elliott-Smith, director at sustainability and wellbeing consultancy Element 4, says wellbeing, quite simply, is “of the zeitgeist”.

And for certain, wellbeing has become the corporate hot topic of our age. The conversations about yoga poses, green juices and rhythms perhaps formerly restricted in their commercial value have become common-place concerns for many.

Organisations are taking the logical step of tapping into a growing public demand and asking: What practical impact can we actually have on people’s health and wellbeing?

Elliott-Smith says that, historically, people have provided workplaces that are simply functional environments, expecting “people to come into that space and be productive”. But as scientific research advances, there’s an increased understanding that a quality environment is vital. Providing an abundance of natural light, for example, can help to stabilise people’s moods and sleep, while improving air quality can inhibit health issues caused by environmental pollutants.

Science provides the evidence but it’s often high-profile personalities that cause the message to resonate. Mental wellbeing ambassadors such as Princes William and Harry, and entertainers Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry have made it more acceptable to discuss workplace wellbeing from a mental health perspective, Jonathan Gawthrop, director of health, safety and wellbeing at Emcor UK, argues.

People are also eager to improve physical health, thanks in part to the successes of professional sports teams, which Gawthrop says, along with government initiatives driven by Public Health England, have created a “perfect storm” of wellbeing awareness.

Business’s interest in wellbeing has piqued at the links between improved worker health and the holy grail of improved productivity. “Wellbeing has broadened its attractiveness at board level,” Gawthrop says, with the C-suite claiming domain over wellbeing and their sights on economic gains.”

And more organisations are seeing wellbeing’s value in reducing sickness absence, improving productivity and lowering health insurance premiums, says Dr Judith Grant, director of health and wellbeing at Mace Group. Grant cites research from the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) that shows two in five organisations now have a wellbeing strategy in place.

But that doesn’t mean it’s working: “Only a quarter of those people are actually evaluating the success of what they’re doing,” says Grant.

A relevant question to ask: Might employees regard organisational wellbeing projects cynically? Gawthrop says authenticity is essential. Without it, employees might think: “You’re only keeping me here running on the treadmill because the machine goes faster,” he says. Companies should be guided by their leaders’ moral compass and the notion that – stop us if you’ve heard this one before – people are a company’s biggest asset.

Jacquie Price, HR manager at Linaker, also highlights the morality essential to drive wellbeing initiatives. There’s an obligation not only to fulfil legal obligations towards staff but moral duties too.

If we are to accept workplace wellbeing in terms of staff productivity, Stacy Thomson, founder of the Performance Club, says this needn’t be interpreted cynically.

Especially not if productivity is considered as being able to perform the activities that matter in one’s life, including work, socialising and properly processing emotions and learning. From this perspective, wellbeing programmes are mutually advantageous agreements between employees and their employers.

What’s genuinely new about wellbeing?

Wellbeing has been around for a while but the awareness of the subject has increased, says Martin Stead, managing director at Sewell Facilities Management. Part of this comes down to people engaging in more open discussions about mental health, but it’s also due to “the widely publicised buzz word of company ‘culture’,” he says.

“It’s fairly widely acknowledged that to be able to boast an enviable, positive workplace culture, employee wellbeing needs to be front of mind. After all, happy, healthy employees mean a better working environment and high productivity,” Stead adds.

For Grant, the ‘new’ aspect of wellbeing is that it is now being discussed at board level with power being granted to those in HR, H&S and wellbeing roles to implement change.

Perhaps more importantly for FM and workplace teams is access to data. They can now inform wellbeing initiatives using large data sets and support “what we knew for decades was the right thing to do”, says Peter Tayar-Watson, QHSE performance director at Mace Macro.

Previously, the wellbeing narrative was “caring for employees”, which, while important, is not the best means of securing board support, Tayar-watson adds. What’s necessary is data and a business case to present an argument showing that wellbeing boosts productivity. From an FM or workplace perspective, this could mean measuring CO2 levels and how they impact workers’ performance. Doing so could change the discussions – and inform the actions – from reactively needing to improve poor air quality to appreciating that clean air will lead to higher output.

Wellbeing fundamentals

Employees need to feel that they can discuss their wellness issues. “Simply making it known in your workplace that people are encouraged to start conversations is a great, inexpensive first step to take,” Stead says. Dealing with those conversations requires guidance, but mental health charity Mind, for instance, provides resources for employers and employees to deal with wellbeing.

The next step after communicating that there’s a culture of open dialogue is determining and implementing relevant wellbeing initiatives. As with most initiatives, wellbeing requires senior leadership’s buy-in as this means proper allocation of resources, Matthew Rae, director of safety and wellbeing at Vodafone, says.

This is a sentiment with which Price agrees. Although she adds that wellbeing is “everyone’s job”. Including all members of the organisation will “stimulate engagement” and “allow thought leadership to create wellness and engagement strategies that are unique to your own business culture,” she argues.

Adopting this inclusive approach could also prevent a top-down approach to wellbeing. Rae warns that wellbeing risks becoming too “prohibitive”, “dictatorial” and “artificial” if it’s subsumed within a compliance-led framework. “You have to give people optionality,” Rae says, “you have to give people the ability to customise their own wellbeing and make the choices that are relevant to them.”

Stead agrees with the sentiment: “If we pester everyone into a rigid, top-down, box-checking exercise to monitor wellbeing then how do we show employees that we actually do care about them and that we’re not just checking in because we feel like we have to?

“Simply training some willing employees in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) would be a typical top-down approach when, in fact, a much broader strategy is required,” he says. So MHFA training would need to be supplemented with “general awareness sessions ideally with individuals who are willing to open up about their own experiences”. Stead adds: “Employees need to know that it is OK to not be OK and that the relevant support framework is in place.”

Avoiding a rigid top-down approach does not mean that measurements don’t matter. Rae, who is searching for the “killer metric” says “what gets measured gets done”. In a study of Vodafone’s frontline staff – at call centres or retail stores – at one of its operating companies, Rae says: “Those with better retention always have higher wellbeing, so that’s the correlation that we drew out of that.” But equally, the metric could have been productivity or attraction of new candidates.

What matters is the metrics have connected outputs.

Successful wellbeing initiatives need to “evidential” Gawthrop says so “don’t just go off and do what you think might be right because it doesn’t answer the ‘so what’ question”. One way to employ evidential reasoning would be to look at attrition, for example, and assess all the various reasons why people leave. You can start to “build some critical mass in terms of evidence” to motivate why a wellbeing programme to try to decrease attrition would be beneficial.

Quick wellbeing wins for FM

Rae says workplace and facilities managers can optimise space to accommodate wellbeing activities. While this could be as grand as installing an onsite gym, it could be as simple as setting aside a room or area for a two-hour session of painting with watercolours. The FM’s role would be to help create communities that learn and engage with each other.

Equally simple to arrange, although it may be a struggle to convince the traditionalists, are walking meetings. These don’t cost anything and tick multiple wellbeing boxes, Elliott-Smith says. Attendees at meetings that don’t require note – catch-ups or brainstorms, as examples – can ditch the chairs for a stroll within or indeed outside of the building.

“It’s a digital detox, so you get out from behind the screen; you see daylight, which is really important; you’re getting physical movement, so it’s good for your musculo-skeletal system; it’s good for your digestion; and it changes the conversation.”

The result for FMs, should walking meetings take off, would be significant alleviation of demand for meeting rooms, which are often booked but not used or overbooked, leading to frustration of those in the workplace. Of course, the onus would be also be on FMs to provide resources such as umbrellas and maps of the area, while making clear information on the benefits walking meetings can bring.

Alyn Franklin, CEO of Alcumus Group is also an advocate of walking meetings – especially when tied to events such as a month-long step challenge – but lists certain workplace features as being key to employee wellbeing. For example, providing seating areas outside the building and breakout spaces inside for colleagues to relax and also collaborate, as well as a staff canteen that serves healthy meals as being important workplace offerings.

Air quality will also be an important topic this year, Elliott-Smith says, not least because of the case of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, the mother of whom is pressing to have her daughter’s cause of death changed from asthma to air pollution – a first in the UK. But it’s also an important issue over which FMs can have control.

Awareness of indoor and outdoor air quality’s links to allergies, asthma and other conditions is growing. Elliott-Smith tells of an air-quality device that can be bought online for £50 to be placed at your desk and which sounds an alarm when air quality drops below a certain level.

Improving access to natural light is another simple and low-cost initiative. Quality light can affect what we eat and the foods we crave, sleep quality and mood yet few exploit this resource. Look at a workplace and note where the workstations are situated in relation to the windows. Often, Elliott-Smith laments, desks are in the middle of the floor plate while bookcases, filing cabinets, tea points, occasional seats and tables, and even meeting rooms are along the perimeter with the best daylight.

FM and workplace teams are tasked with looking after others but they need to care for themselves. It’s a stressful role and, as Stead says, requires personal attention and care, which could be as simple as allocating enough time to eat lunch or have a cup of tea before racing off to the next task.

Employers and team leaders also have a duty to cater to employees’ needs. Work is stressful enough so add “managing a home, caring for family – and it means stresses start niggling at people’s wellbeing”, Stead says. So “flexibility to manage their life around their role” can help, as does engaging employees and listening to their challenges.

There’s also value in appointing wellbeing ambassadors. Mace has appointed 250 employees as ambassadors across the group but Grant says. The ambassadors – whether at the client site or in their own teams – offer “toolbox talks” about important issues close to them. So these could include the importance of healthy nutrition, sufficient exercise or lessons in mental health resilience.

Not only is it “empowering” for staff, Grant says there’s “all sorts of [centralised] collateral” ambassadors can use in their teams or workplaces. This approach can also lead to partnership building with clients, she adds, especially when wellbeing content and approaches are shared between client and provider.

It’s tempting to offer opt-in wellbeing initiatives such as running clubs, meditation sessions or yoga groups. People will tend to nod approvingly but they won’t likely show up, citing being busy, forgetting their kit or just not feeling in the mood as reasons for non-participation. And those that do participate are already runners or yoginis. Elliott-Smith says: “It’s usually not going to be the person who most needs an intervention.”

Focus instead on passive interventions – improved air and light, ergonomic workstations – that users interact with even without choosing to. “There’s got to be a clear line between what is our responsibility and what isn’t,” Elliott-Smith advises.

Running clubs and walking meetings are helpful and can gain traction over time but workplace and facilities managers have to prioritise elements they can control.

Wellbeing broadly defined

There has been a dramatic surge in wellbeing professionals lately, which opens up the sector to cynicism. “Everyone brands themselves as [doing] wellbeing and people that were doing stuff before in the health space all of suddenly have become wellbeing ambassadors,” Rae says. “People that were doing physical activities like personal trainers are wellbeing life coaches so there’s a whole branding piece around that as well.

“But if you pull that altogether and look at wellbeing from a holistic perspective, there’s a significant proposition that resonates with people.”

Cynicism aside, a practical problem is the often “scattergun” approach to wellbeing initiatives, Elliott-Smith says. Everyone thinks they know something about wellbeing so a suggestion box policy sounds effective but usually isn’t (automatically closing toilet seats, for instance). A better approach is following a scientifically robust system such as Fitwel and WELL that offers strategies and actions to implement and evidence to show how these can improve people’s wellbeing.

Debating the mental health narrative

Discussions about mental health have increased but the prevailing narrative is wrong. Many hear ‘mental health’ but think ‘mental illness’, imagining characters from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – “scary people, people who can’t do their job, weak people,” Thomson explains. This just perpetuates an unhelpful ‘us versus them’ mentality.

We should define mental health – not as an illness – but as the fundamental condition for living a good life and being able to deal with inevitable problems. This helps to avoid the stigma of mental health discussions but also acknowledges that struggling with our responses to stress and interactions with the world is not the same as being mentally unwell. It’s “emotional dysregulation” not mental illness, Thomson adds.

Changing the narrative also means organisations need to stop fixating on the negative. They should favour the “positive psychology point of view”, Thomson says. For example, when a survey shows that 40 per cent of an organisation’s workforce is unhappy, why not focus on the factors that are making the other 60 per cent happy – “what are they doing that other people aren’t?” she asks.

Organisations need processes to help those with mental illnesses but the overarching conversation should address how we can all achieve positive psychology and empowerment.”