A convergence of dynamics (including the recent pandemic, the rise in conscious leadership, and talent shortages) is propelling employee wellbeing up the corporate agenda.
For those companies who are not yet convinced or sure how to progress (40% don’t have a strategy says the CIPD), in this article, I make the case to prioritise it and share highlights of an approach that links employee wellbeing to measurable outcomes and improved business performance.
The case for caring about employees
The great resignation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, has helped elevate the importance of employee wellbeing. Employee churn, burn out and the lost productivity associated with these symptoms is costly. Mental health is responsible for 56% of long-term unplanned absences, making it the most common cause of long-term absence (CIPD). Yet, according to the CIPD’s health and wellbeing report, only 40% of UK businesses have a ‘standalone employee wellbeing strategy’.
Employee disengagement was prevalent pre-pandemic times. Gallup estimates only 15% are engaged (Source: Gallup). This situation is harmful leading to diminished business performance, ill health and low morale. It need not be the case. We know another way.
The good news is, employee engagement and wellness can boost the bottom line if such efforts are strategically aligned with business goals and priorities. Market Culture, a firm focusing on cultivating corporate culture, found employee engagement scores increase when employees are empowered to act in the interests of customers. (Source: Market Culture Foundation Study 2009).
Make wellbeing work for your business
So how do you ensure your employee wellbeing approach is fit for purpose, that it helps retain your great employees and progress your business rather than damage it?
We offer three golden guidelines to act as framework for a purposeful, people-first transformation journey.
- Conduct a rigorous root cause analysis of what is driving employee ill-being and poor performance
- Design your programme or leadership style with an understanding of humanity, human psychology and what good looks like using an inclusive participatory design approach
- Consistently model, incentivise and reward the leadership behaviours you value at all levels of the organisation starting at the top.
We’ll now delve into each of these areas.
1) Our first golden rule is about gathering the right data and insight
Employee wellbeing is a powerful indicator of the health of your culture, leadership strength, and predictor of your business performance. Find out what is really going on and develop your programme accordingly.
By undertaking a rigorous and holistic analysis of the root cause for churn, illness and poor productivity and performance in your company, you will be more likely to come up with an effective programme. The tendency to be tactical — offering perks, recognition and incentives without involving your employees and understanding the blockers — will not lead to lasting results.
A great way to find out what is going on is to speak to your employees, customers and stakeholders (including suppliers). They hold many of the insights and answers you need to design a sustainable culture. How often are they truly heard, consulted and engaged?
Many have noted that ‘the great resignation’ (when people quit work in droves back in May 2021) had deep root causes that may indicate disillusionment. Organisational psychologist, Ludmila Praslova, Ph.D. identifies ‘moral injury’ as a possible root cause (Source: Fast Company). It occurs when employee values and organisational behaviour are not in sync. The best employee wellness programme in the world won’t work if employees are suffering from moral injury.
If your employees are forced to act against their moral code on a daily basis whether that be overlooking unethical practices or following instructions that go against their moral grain, they will disconnect, do the bare minimum to survive, blow the whistle and/or leave.
Make sure you diagnose your issues correctly. If not, you may end up with a programme that does not address the real reasons people are unhappy or even worse on the news with a scandal and reputation disaster like Facebook. (Source: The New York Times).
Measure the right things, the metrics that count. What gets measured gets moved so make sure you are moving the right things (not what is easy or has been done before). Employee wellbeing should not come at the expense of letting your customers down.
Facebook’s whistle blower provided evidence indicating Facebook knew it could not make Instagram safe for children amongst other claims now being reviewed in courts around the world. (Source: The Guardian). Once you have identified your weaknesses, limitations and strengths, you can build a robust and relevant wellness programme bolstered by an empathetic customer culture that will out innovate your competition.
2) Our second golden guideline is about understanding and leveraging human psychology.
Develop your programme based on a deep understanding humanity, human psychology and what good looks like.
Organisations often go for easy solutions. For example, providing access to wellbeing apps. Yet on their own, tech solutions can fail to hit the mark, leading to further disengagement and wasted investments.
Instead, why not adopt an approach that moves people into a reward state, not a fight or flight response. This process-oriented approach includes involving your people in designing solutions that will result in employee wellness.
An excellent method is to use design workshops that involve people in exploring problems and coming up with their own solutions. Start with a small team but scale up the impact by showcasing the work and eliciting further feedback. Creating task groups and change champions will help build momentum. Recent research shows by involving 7% of your workforce in transformation programmes, they are twice as likely to have 2x the total returns to shareholders than those involving fewer people. (Source: McKinsey ).
If you decide to introduce technical solutions, increase the chances of successful tech adoption with employee participation and inclusion in the planning process. Participatory processes release positive brain chemicals including dopamine helping to create a feel-good factor as well as employee buy-in and drive to achieve. (Source Corporate Wellness Magazine).
Most crucially though is the creation of psychological safety within your organisation. Google’s Project Aristotle proved IQ and money do no produce results. The greatest impact on high performance is psychological safety. Google regularly runs experiments with employees to find out the best ways to manage their large workforce.
They discovered psychological safety helped make teams more closely connected and productive driving employee advocacy and engagement. Operating in a fear state induces anxiety and decreases productivity. Teams that are successful approach conflict as collaborators, not adversaries, speak human to human, anticipate reasons, plan countermoves, replace blame with curiosity. (Source: Google)
To succeed in all realms of business and futureproof your work place cultivate resilience, agility and psychological safety. Create an open caring culture that listens intentionally, has a purpose that brings meaning to work, and combats moral injury.
Optimising diversity including neurodiversity will also deliver results and enrich your culture. Cognitively diverse teams can increase innovation by 20% and reduce risk by 30%. “ Harnessing the power of Cognitive Diversity is set to become the key source of competitive advantage and the surest route to reinvention and growth’ says Matthew Syed (2019). Finally, when leaders focus on employee strengths, engagement levels increase to 73% (vs 9% with no strengths focus).
A lot of what needs to be done is about how the organisation is managed! This leads on to the importance of leadership styles and behaviours.
3) Our third golden thread is about fostering consistent and congruent leadership behaviours
To create a captivating workplace culture requires a psychological safety. Future leaders are not afraid to show vulnerability as a means to be brave and help their organisations succeed. (Source: Brené Brown). Customer-centric organisations that outperform their competitors need employees who are empowered and can collaborate with their peers. Leaders who can create psychological safety and a caring empathetic culture will ultimately create the most sustainable companies.
Future leaders must lead by example. If the company mission says one thing, but leaders are doing another, morale will plummet. Just look at the trouble Boris Johnson is facing for his contradictory behaviour at the present moment. Don’t say one thing (e.g. socially distance and isolate) and do another (congregate and mingle) if you want a sustainable enterprise, let alone trust in government.
For an organisation and its employees to thrive, leaders must be fit for purpose, they must understand human needs, and be able to foster an open state where true creativity and human potential will be realised.
“At an individual level, we need personal fulfilment and happiness. At an organisational level, we need innovation and sustained competitive advantage “ Timothy R Clark 2020
How will you foster employee wellness and a distinctive company culture to captivate your employees, drive outstanding customer value, brand advocacy, loyalty and profit?
The ingredients of a workplace that fosters employee wellbeing, will also cultivate winning business outcomes and performance. To do so requires a safe milieu: “Psychological safety is the foundation of inclusion and team performance and the key to creating an innovative culture” (Source: Timothy R Clark 2020).
Make a resolution to drive sustainable culture change in your organisation. Boost your employee wellness and productivity scores and drive superior business performance by understanding the blockers in your organisation, what good looks like based on a deep-rooted understanding of human needs and model leadership behavours that will bring the best out in your people.
We would love to hear about what changes you will make in 2022?
About the author
Ann Longley is Director, Digital Strategy, Transformation and Culture Design at Something New Together.