“We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering”.
I considered a multitude of ways to begin writing this piece on the topic of workplace wellbeing, but nothing felt as fitting and necessary to communicate as this message from BrenéBrown. Not only is she a fellow Texan and psychologist, but in my opinion, the corporate world needs a big dose of her perspective on the power of bringing your true self to all things you do (being ‘all in’) by understanding that vulnerability is a prerequisite for courage. And in courageous acts, big or small, we live our lives to the fullest in failings and triumphs alike.
Putting ROI this and ROI that behind us
When I first began working alongside the Health & Safety industry about a year and a half ago, it was honestly disappointing to observe how much of the corporate world required an overwhelming financially compelling case for change when it came to investing in wellbeing - via shocking statistics on absenteeism and loss in employee productivity - to galvanise leaders to take action.
My feelings rather mimicked those of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, when he spoke about why Apple was investing in catering their products to physically disabled people:“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI. If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock”.
Coming from the helping field, I felt the fact that companies were questioning in some way, shape, or form whether proactively looking after the wellbeing of their people was really necessary or important elucidated the fact that there must be a pervasive, myopic, overly profit-oriented view of what good looks like when it comes to running a business!
All of this being said, I have built out a sizeable network of wellbeing professionals since then and am pleased to say I believe we have taken significant strides forward over the past eighteen months. I have seen a promising shift away from just ‘What’s in it for me?’ to more mature, practical conversations about how we create healthy workplace environments where human connection can truly happen, how we upskill our people to support each other with mental and emotional health, how we enable people to achieve work-life integration, etc.
No doubt it will take time for organisations to inculcate in their teams the behaviours that lead to collective, holistic thriving, but an important attitude shift is taking place so I will take this opportunity to offer some commentary on the changes laying the tracks for progress.
The corporate world through the eyes of a psychologist and long-term academic
I recently gave a talk about my contributions to improving the wellbeing strategy the specialist recruitment company I work for, Acre, is currently deploying. I began by explaining my perspective as a young woman from a clinical psychology background now looking at a long-term career in sales.
Firstly, the nature of my previous studies created an environment where conversations about wellbeing were inherent fixtures in my day-to-day life. Having functioned in my psychology academia bubble for so long to change directions swiftly to take on my first ‘office job’ at 26, it was strange to see these support systems largely all but disappear, even in well-intentioned, values-led organisations with leaders I respect!
Secondly, the reality for my generation (Generation Y or Millennials) is the promise of retirement is more dismal than ever. If I am likely to be working into late age far beyond the precedent retirement age as we know it, I certainly expect my workplace to be sustainable. I wholeheartedly do not believe the current state of the modern workplace is sustainable. I live it, very often love it, and grow from it, but it is notsustainable. On this note, I would like to share a quote from Tony Schwartz in the introduction to The Human Era at Work:
“Since the dawn of capitalism, time for money has been the core value exchange between employees and their employers. It no longer serves either party well. Paying for people’s time is no guarantee you’ll also get their energy, engagement, focus, or passion. Conversely, no amount of money people get paid is sufficient to meet their core needs.
We’ve valued people for what they can produce, but paid very little attention to what it takes to be sustainably productive. Instead, for 200 years, since the dawn of the Industrial Age, the model for how to work has been the machine, and more recently, the computer. More, bigger, faster remains the prevailing mantra… In today’s knowledge-driven economy, the best measure of productivity is no longer how much time people invest. Rather, it’s how much energy they bring to whatever hours they work – and the value of the work they produce as a consequence. The challenge for employers is to free, fuel, and inspire their employees to bring more of their potential to work every day”.
Many of us have become inveterate perfectionists and workaholics, and this is too often praised and reinforced. It’s notsustainable and should not be an aspiration. ‘Good busy’ can easily become a toxic pattern of behaviour and it is literally impossible for all of our core needs as human beings to be met in the workplace.
When it comes to what really motivates us in the workplace, in the words of Dan Pink: “[Companies] are finally realising that we’re full-fledged human beings, not single-minded economic robots”. It is often said that my generation is particularly purpose-led when it comes to seeking out job opportunities rather than primarily chasing dollar signs, but the results of my research on this topic were too variant to have a strong evidence-based opinion.
Considering there are far more university graduates with proportionally far less jobs waiting for them when they graduate (often debt-ridden – certainly in the US at least), financial stability is very understandably a high priority on the list. I think in many ways perhaps we are just more vocal about it, or social media has put a magnifying glass over this issue.
Times are changing, but are generational differences really the driver?
I came across an interesting research report from Lovell Corporation called How Millenials and Generation Z are Redefining Work(2017), which shows entrepreneurship and public service work emerging as the most desirable career paths. The entrepreneurship piece chimes with my expectations and I think a major appeal of running your own company is defining what your work day/workplace looks like.
At Acre, we have seen contract and interim recruitment on the rise, and freelancers I have worked with say the ability to shape their lifestyles makes forgoing the benefits a permanent role offers a small price to pay. I think George Bernard Shaw puts it nicely when he says: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Cheers to the ‘unreasonable’ (wo)man then!
In his book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – and What We Can Do About It, Jeffrey Pfeffer notes a piece of research by Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger that “found that the proportion of people working in alternative work arrangements has increased some 50% in the ten years from 2005 to 2015. Moreover, ‘94% of the net employment growth in the US economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements’”.
I think it is clear people are seeking greater freedom to work and look after themselves simultaneously in ways that best fit them as individuals! I have mentioned Dan Pink once and I will mention him again to share a talk he did on The Secret of Perfect Timing– the key relevant takeaway for me here is that we all have unique patterns in which we achieve optimal performance so it is glaringly obvious how a rigid 9am-5pm (at least!) five-day work week will not enable you to get the best out of each of your employees.
Lastly, I think it is important to note that my generation is far more prepared to leave a company for greener pastures. We will likely not hold the same jobs for 20+ years, so if companies want to retain us they will have to step up what they offer in the wellbeing arena.
To provide a laconic summary of what I have explored thus far: I do not think our workforce’s wants and needs have rapidly changed, requiring a new management style… I think we are simply more aware, and slowly but surely, more prepared to talk about it.
I recently had a conversation with a respected friend and informal mentor of mine, Geoff McDonald, on whether management of personal wellbeing is a behavioural competency critical for success as a leader. From Global VP of HR at Unilever to mental health advocate in the here and now, Geoff is amongst the individualsleading the way to prosleytise the idea that companies have responsibility for their people’s wellbeing and must change the way they function in order to honour that responsibility. Geoff’s thoughts: “This is critical and has been overlooked for too long. Spoken about, but never built into the infrastructure for leadership development. The time has come and leaders should be held accountable for their wellbeing, just like any other competency. We need individual and organisational accountability to enhance wellbeing of all leaders and employees”.
Don’t stop asking questions to learn and understand: Insights from a simple wellbeing survey
So, I have presented some ideas and resources to comment on multigenerational perspectives on workplace wellbeing, but I thought I would conduct my own small piece of research to offer up fresh insights – simple and non-scientific, but insightful nonetheless.
I shared the following online survey to my LinkedIn network of approximately 20,000 connections to see if any trends could be established regarding what people value in the workplace and how engaged people are with the workplace wellbeing agenda. These connections are largely UK/EU based and the majority work in the health, safety and environment profession, closely followed by those in corporate responsibility and sustainability. The only requirements I established for the survey were: 1. Age of respondents must be 18+ 2. Respondents must be currently working or studying. A summary of the resultant demographic data is as follows.
Age distribution of respondents:
18-24 years old – 6%
25-34 years old – 33%
35-44 years old – 30%
45-54 years old – 21%
55-64 years old – 10%
65-74 years old – 0%
75+ years old – 0%
Employment status distribution of respondents:
Part-time work – 5%
Full-time work – 95%
Undergraduate student – 0%
Postgraduate student – 0%
o 46% of survey respondents ranked Company Culture first as most important when considering a potential employer, followed by Career Development (24%), Earning Potential (16%), Company Reputation (8%), and Employee Support (6%). On the other hand, 38% of survey respondents ranked Employee Reputation last as least important when considering a potential employer, followed by Career Development (14%), Earning Potential (11%), Company Culture (5%), and Employee Support (3%).
o 56% of survey respondents strongly agreed that it is important to them that the company they work for has initiatives in place that support employee wellbeing followed by 33% who agreed. Only 5% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed. Per the statistics, there is an overwhelming majority that agrees wellbeing initiatives are important.
o 81% of survey respondents either slightly agreed (21%), agreed (32%), or strongly agreed (29%) their decision to work for a company would be impacted by whether the organisation has initiatives in place that support employee wellbeing. I was not sure what to expect from this, but results would suggest if employers want to attract the best talent, they need to ensure they have a robust wellbeing strategy.
o 51% of survey respondents either agreed (32%) or strongly agreed (19%) the current company they work for appropriately supports their overall wellbeing. 3% of survey respondents strongly disagreed. Personally I am a bit disappointed with this outcome… I believe we can and should be able to do better than 50/50.
o 54% of survey respondents strongly agreed they believe companies have a degree of responsibility for wellbeing of employees followed by 35% who agreed in comparison to only 4% who either slightly disagreed (2%), disagreed (0%), or strongly disagreed (2%). To conclude, there is also a very strong majority who agree employers have responsibility for their people’s wellbeing.
No statistically significant trends differentiated age groups regarding their opinions on the above questions, but keep in mind this is a small sample of individuals whose diversity has not been evaluated.
If you could change anything to improve wellbeing in your workplace, what might it be?
Survey responses to what people would most like to see change in their workplaces included a vast range of topics, but mental health, work/life balance, flexible working, better communication, and a more human-centred approach emerged as some of the most consistent feedback for areas of improvement. Whilst a good number of people noted their companies are already doing great work on wellbeing, some responses painted a very different picture, which is a testament to the fact that we have a long way to go still.
So what types of things did the survey respondents want to see change exactly?
“For operational processes to be assessed and for more resources to be provided to improve the conditions for current employees instead of being soley focused on more ‘on trend’ wellbeing improvements (yoga, electronic health checks, etc)”.
“Steps taken to address the high turnover of staff due to the workplace environment and the organisation’s culture being solely focused on today's finance figures. There is no accounting for the costs incurred by not retaining staff”.
“Heads of Health and Safety to change to Heads of Wellbeing, and education on what wellbeing really is about (Healthy, productive, present people)”.
“My company has the resources, but doesn't signpost people to them. Better information and advertisement required”.
“Currently wellbeing at my workplace is delivered to an exceptional standard; however, it is split over HR, Facilities and Internal Communications. I would like to see this service unified into a single team empowered to review and improve the offerings, and align them globally so all our employees have an equal opportunity to experience wellbeing/wellness”.
“An understanding of what really motivates me”.
“Wellbeing is always bottom of the list. Companies say it’s important but the following is true: 1. Safety (related to regulation) 2. Quality (reduce failures) 3. Productivity (get it out the door) 4. Cost (maximise returns reduce base costs) 5. People (only if time allows and never wellbeing)”.
“More flexible working hours and more options to work from home every now and again. Being chained to the office is no fun at all, and my work completely impinges on the rest of my life. I believe my managers care, but the company as a whole and directors do not understand the need for staff wellbeing and it has detrimental effects throughout the business”.
“A more inspiring work (office) environment”.
“For people to be treated as people”.
… Like I said, we still have a long way to go.
Investing in a business means investing in its lifeblood: Humans
To conclude, I will keep it short and sweet: I truly believe that if we start with looking after our people, they will look after our businesses, but that initial act cannot be a means to an end if it is going to create meaningful change.To current and aspiring business leaders out there from the lips of an ambitious, hard-working young woman who could bring a lot of value to your organisation one day, I strongly encourage you to invest in the humans that (will) work for you so they can thrive, and it will likely just so happen that your business does too.
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