Employers must not lose sight of the organisational aspect of wellbeing by focusing too heavily on individuals, according to Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer at BT and chair of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.
Speaking at Roffey Park’s 70th anniversary Wellbeing in the Workplace Forum, Litchfield said: “That organisational element is the bit we must remember. We can’t just say to people 'we’ve given you resilience training, fruit in the office and free gym membership, now over to you'.”
He pointed to change in the workplace as a key stressor. “Change is the most potent psychosocial risk,” he said, emphasising the need for fairness, support and transparency in managing change, and for effective manager training. “Middle managers are the people in the organisation that buffer chaos,” he said. “The people at the top have the great ideas. The people at the bottom say 'what are these idiots doing?' And the managers have to turn the ideas from the top into reality while buffering [that discontent from below].”
Senior consultant at Roffey Park Benedict Eccles also warned of the dangers of focusing on individual initiatives to the detriment of a more joined-up approach. Explaining the definition of wellbeing as the right balance between “an abundance” of factors that improve wellbeing and the absence of factors that detract from it, he cautioned not to focus too much on the abundance side of things.
It’s a common misconception that “the abundance of provision is going to solve the absence of harmful conditions” issue he added, highlighting the danger of becoming obsessed with any one wellbeing trend, such as mindfulness.
Litchfield also warned against pursuing one idea “to destruction", citing the example of purpose. “I can’t impress my sense of purpose on you, so the trick is to create a sense of purpose that most can buy into,” he said. He explained that organisations must recognise some workers don’t want or will never find purpose in their jobs and that offering volunteering opportunities is one way of “facilitating other ways for people to get meaning into their lives that’s associated with their employer".
Mental wellbeing was a key theme of the forum. Chief executive of Roffey Park Michael Jenkins unveiled a new study from the organisation, which found that stress levels have increased for 44% of workers. It also found that 64% of respondents would feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with a colleague, but only 56% with a manager. “There’s huge scope for improvement there,” Jenkins commented.
The pressures of an ‘always on’ culture, social media, and a rise in insecure working were explored. Director of people and OD at the NSPCC Siobhan Sheridan said it is up to HR to know their workforces and which kinds of working they would see as flexible, and which insecure.
“Actors and musicians for example, those people really value the ability to work flexibly because that gives them a form of security they really care about… to contract on and off to the thing they really care about,” she said. “So it’s about knowing the individuals, those people employed in your market and the environment that’s most effective for them.”
The responsibility employers have to wider society was also discussed. “We need to recognise that [employee wellbeing] has an impact on the rest of society,” said Litchfield. “[Strong wellbeing] is what governments are looking for and what CSR communities are trying to achieve. So wellbeing can be a vehicle for promoting CSR in your business.”
“Much as we need to pay attention to ourselves and the generation currently in the workforce, more thought to how the generations coming through are being affected [by a 24/7 culture and pressure from social media] is needed,” added Sheridan.