How to make wellbeing work in the office

While researchers still argue over what makes up its constituent parts, it is clear that a sense of wellbeing results in a number of tangible benefits for organisations. Audrey Tang examines the solutions on offer when it comes to ensuring that employees enjoy good mental health

In a recent review of the research into wellbeing at work, one of the most common definitions of health was that provided by the constitution of the World Health Organisation: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The benefits of wellbeing include greater efficiency (Russell, 2003), more effective interpersonal interactions and taking up opportunities (Staw & Barsade,1993), greater motivation (Isen & Baron, 1991), and even greater cognitive flexibility, resulting in better problem solving and creativity (Clore et al,1994).

However, a virtuous cycle can easily become a vicious one.  Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that globally, 40 per cent of people were looking to leave their employer in 2021 and just last year sick leave in the UK was at an all-time high.

As such, more emphasis has been placed on wellbeing than ever before with a focus not just on mental and emotional resilience, but also opportunities for growth and finding greater meaning and purpose within the workplace itself.  However, there is a problem when it comes to wellbeing interventions that all business psychologists face: when there are mental health concerns it is the individual and personal incentives that are stepped up; build-your-resilience workshops, lunchtime yoga, stress-busting apps and so on.

Taking a different approach

But this simply isn’t good enough. Consider the health-and-safety perspective on physical health: if someone falls down a hole, the organisational response is to fix the hole – not teach people to walk around holes better or learn to climb out faster.

Scholes (2023) points out that an organisationally driven ‘psychosocial safety climate’ – akin to the practical health-and-safety approach – is likely to better promote and sustain wellbeing. This means taking a much more systemic approach to mental and emotional health.

Wellbeing at work is not just helping people build their resilience, or mental and emotional fitness. It helps, but that is only part of the story. It is as important to remove the cause of the mental and emotional ill health in the first instance.

As such, organisations need to reflect on their wellbeing strategy (and employee engagement with it), their overall design and demands, the tools or technology available to do all aspects of the job well and ask themselves if this is conducive to good health – and if not, what can be done about it? It is not necessarily about making the individual more resilient, but changing the culture that caused the need for that level of resilience in the first place. 

A practical solution

Herzberg et al (1959) used the term ‘hygiene’ with the same meaning as medical hygiene, ie factors within a job that are needed to remove health hazards. These included fair salary, status, supervision and security, healthy relationships with colleagues and conditions of the working environment.

For Herzberg, without fair pay, a healthy pace of work and positive relationships in an environment conducive to the nature of the job, your teams are likely to become unwell. These ‘hygiene’ factors are essential to avoid illness – or job dissatisfaction at the very least.

Herzberg also noted that there were a number of motivating factors that contributed to job satisfaction. They included achievement and recognition, opportunity for advancement and growth, the need for feedback, a feeling of responsibility and enjoyment of the work itself.

Herzberg maintained that job satisfaction (motivation) and job dissatisfaction (hygiene) were not opposites; rather, the opposite of job satisfaction was ‘no job satisfaction’ and the opposite of job dissatisfaction was ‘no job dissatisfaction’. Leaders, therefore, must ensure the hygiene factors are in place to avoid ill health at work and encourage motivational factors to promote satisfaction. 

The two are not mutually exclusive – they need to exist together. To make positive changes, try a reverse engineering approach. Now you have an idea of where you are, think about where you want to go. This current place of self-reflection will give you a wealth of information about yourself, the way you operate, with whom you work best and what may be missing. 

Then, when you look at where you want to get to, you can work backwards from there to your starting point for change.

Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist, mental health broadcaster and author of The Leader’s Guide to Wellbeing

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