Well-being at Work:  How can we help our employees, and what responsibility does the organisation have?

This is a complex question.  The life and work issues facing employees are so vast and so varied that it can seem overwhelming to consider.

The way a small or medium-sized organisation will be able to approach these issues will be different to corporations or public sector employers – as will some of the issues.  Differences will include financial resources of the organisation, speed of change, internal pressures, market pressures and environment.  However, every organisation should be giving some thought to encouraging and promoting well-being in the work-place.

What do we mean by well-being at work?

The CIPD define well-being at work as, ‘Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and attain their full potential for the benefit of the organisation’

This definition was conceived by the CIPD advisory group which was set up in 2006 to identify some useful principles for the development of employee well-being in the workplace.  The foundation of this group was based on a 2004 White Paper from the Department of Health which concluded that, ‘A motivated, healthy workforce is more likely to perform well.  Employers and employees benefit through improved morale, reduced absenteeism, increased retention, engagement and productivity’.

A company-sponsored approach to well-being is nothing new.  In the 19th Century, initiatives such as the model villages of Saltaire (Titus Salt Mill), Port Sunlight (Lever) and Bourneville (Cadbury) are well known.   These approaches however are no longer sustainable and are examples of paternalistic and often-controlling regimes or cultures.  The modern approach to well-being at work is now much more about empowerment, education, support and shared responsibility.

What are some of the key factors that affect somebody’s well-being at work

It is important to define the differences between elements on which an organisation can have some impact and control, and those that are external to the company, but will still have an impact on that individual’s ability to come to work, cope with stressors and be productive.

In 2001 the UK Health and Safety Executive identified the seven key factors which affect occupational stress;

  • CULTURE – values, attitudes, behaviours
  • DEMANDS – overload, underload, qualitative and quantitative pressures
  • CONTROL – how much autonomy does and employee have?
  • RELATIONSHIPS – support and engagement
  • CHANGE – restructuring, redevelopment
  • ROLE – clarity of expectations
  • SUPPORT – family, friends, managers, colleagues and organisation

For an employee well-being can mean:

  • Having a healthy body, and making healthy choices about diet, exercise and leisure
  • Having an attitude of mind that enables self-confidence, self-respect and to be emotionally resilient
  • Having a sense of purpose, feelings of fulfilment and meaning
  • Possessing an active mind that is alert, open to new experiences, curious and creative
  • Having a network of relationships that are supportive and nurturing
  • Making healthy choices in time-management, engagement with technology, managing workload

External pressures which are affecting all of us, without exception, currently are the impact of globalisation, organisational restructuring, political and economic stressors, constant change, pressure to keep up or upskill, technological shifts and advancements, constant connection, resulting in heightened expectations around speed of response. All of these external factors can have consequences for an individual such as fear about increasing work-load, working hours and a perceived reduction in opportunities, prospects and job security.

What is the impact of poor-health in the work-place?

Occupational, or workplace stress is of concern to both individuals and employees.  Negative consequences of this kind of stress can range from psychological and mental health disorders, to poor physical health and musculo-skeletal disorders, workplace accidents and they can also have a social impact, at an organisational, familial and societal level.

The financial impact of poor attention to well-being is also clear.  In 2014 the Health and Safety executive calculated that 39% of work-related illnesses are due to stress, depression or anxiety.  It is estimated that work-place stress cost the British Economy around £1.26 billion each year.

This kind of stress can result in absenteeism, (a common way of assessing the cost of poor health in the workplace) but also detrimental presenteeism, which can result in people working when unfit, out of fear.  Unfit workers, under stress will obviously be vulnerable to accidents, mistakes, reduced productivity.

Occupational stress is found most commonly in employees in health and social care roles, teachers, public administration and defence.

The ultimate consequence could be death at work, for example poor physical health as well as exposure to stress are implicated in heart disease, bowel disease, disturbed sleep and fatigue.  In a manufacturing or healthcare environment this can be very dangerous.

The high-workload culture is prevalent in industries such as banking, where competition and pressure to prove yourself by working constantly, with little sleep, is practically considered a rite-of-passage.   Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced a review into its working practices in 2013 after 21 year old intern, Moritz Erhardt died in his apartment after a run of 72 hours of work without sleep.

Erhardt was a driven 21 year old with very high standards, growing up in a time of financial crisis and constant exposure via technology to both fear and massive youthful ambition.  It is not hard to imagine the rate at which this kind of pressure will increase on future generations in the workplace.

There will be increasing pressure on organisations, from the government and from employees themselves, to play their part minimising these kind of pressures and outcomes.


What Drives Organisations to invest in wellbeing?

The reasons for organisations to take well-being seriously are obvious.   A healthy organisation is one which is successful financially and whose employees are psychologically and physically healthy.

Poor physical, mental and emotional health at work can mean increased attrition rates, increased training costs, reduced productivity, toxic working relationships and environments, blame culture, reduced morale and employee engagement.

The CIPD defines employee engagement as, ‘a combination of commitment to the organisation and its values plus a willingness to help out colleagues.  It goes beyond job satisfaction and is not simply motivation.  Engagement is something the employee has to offer.’

The American Psychological society recommends that a healthy organisation will; embody employee involvement in decision-making, autonomy in roles, balance between work and life, offer professional development opportunities, provide adequate health and safety safeguards and provide employee recognition.


What are some barriers to implementing an effective well-being programme?

In an ideal world organisations would do all they can to implement well-being programmes at work, however there are obviously elements that are beyond the control of any HR or management team.   The personal circumstances of an individual are always going to be a massive factor in their experience of the world, family and financial pressures are something that an organisation cannot forget.  The whole person should be considered in the implementation of any well-being programme.

  • Individuals will react differently to the same stressor as well. Ultimately stress is as much about the individual perception of the stressor as it is about the stress-factor itself.
  • Personality types can react to stress in different ways. Type A personalities and people who have a strongly external locus of control are much more susceptible to stress – or acting out -than other personality type
  • Cost is a factor that will affect how much investment an organisation can put into a well-being programme. Occupational health departments, health assessments, on-site gym, healthy eating staff canteens, education programmes, workshops or digital resources for employees all have cost implications.


Approaches to creating a Well-Being programme at work

The three main approaches to well-being at work are:

  • Prevention – Which could include health and safety initiatives and assessments, in primary prevention the focus is on maintaining independence and good health and promoting well-being. ‘Primary prevention’ can involve the provision of universal access to good quality information, promotion of health and active lifestyles, delivery of practical services and the provision of social groups, for example healthy canteens, education and hints and tips on health, posture, diet, an on-site gym
  • Promotion – this can include effective communication and reinforcement of a healthy ‘code of working’. For example effective use of emails, meetings, communication, time.   Promotion could include digital resources for employees where they can find out about the organisation’s approach to well-being, the values and expectations of the business.
  • Intervention – This can include structural changes, skills training, flexibility, putting people in the correct roles at recruitment phase.


Building resilience at an organisational level

Resilience is increasingly an important competency.  Which can be defined as the ability to overcome adversity and to grow positively.  This needs to be developed at both an individual level and an organisation level.   In a 2011 report, the CIPD identified four categories where an organisation can build its resilience:

  • Job design (and putting the right people in the right role)
  • Organisational structure
  • Culture
  • Leadership
  • External environment

Increasingly positive psychology is starting to have an impact in building this kind of resilience.  Positive psychology moves away from the pathological approach to psychology and is seen by psychologists such as Martin Seligman as a way to broaden the ability of a person, or organisation to cope, to enhance the quality of life and to fuel resilience.

A ‘Broaden and Build’ approach as a training intervention can encourage people to flourish and thrive at work.    We explored some of these theories in one of our inspirational speaking events with Liquid Thinker, Professor Damian Hughes.

Ultimately an employee needs to be willing to engage in self-care and growth and personal development, however we hope that this article has given you some ideas on how your organisations can contribute to supporting this.

Coming up soon : some case-studies of successful well-being at work initiatives

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