Wellbeing in Name Only

The concept of work-life balance is rapidly approaching cliché status, as organisations continue to send their people mixed messages, and fail to implement wellbeing programs made of real substance.

Wellbeing is a buzzword in organisations at the moment and a pattern has developed at the start of each year, when many organisations send out emails to their people reminding them about ‘eating healthy’, ‘sleeping well’ and ensuring they ‘consider work-life balance’ when they return to work after the holidays. Gym memberships are offered at a discount, or perhaps even for free, and the gesture allows companies to tick another ‘caring’ box on the list.

Sadly we live in an age where many leaders have decided that talking about wellbeing aspects like mindfulness and nutrition, and providing sleep pods, ‘quiet rooms’ and discounted gym memberships is a viable alternative to actually creating a culture that respects and values real,  holistic wellbeing. This value is not just to lives of employees and their families, but the long term productivity and success of the company as a whole.

Despite the fact we can quantify the cost of employee mental and physical ill-health in a wide variety of ways, many still see wellbeing as perfunctory and indeed something to be spoken about, but not embraced.  We hear numerous accounts of people who find themselves marginalised as “not serious candidates” if they take advantage of flexible working or take all the maternity or any of the paternity leave.  We watch as outside health providers line the reception halls of organisations while employees are expected to arrive before 7am and leave exhausted after 8pm, not really creating real space to embrace exercise.

A ‘wellbeing culture’ must be promoted and preserved in workplaces that want to achieve sustainable success in turbulent times.

We can measure the impacts to organisations of increasingly sickly employees, in terms of sickness-absence, turnover, accidents at work, stress and mental health, organisational reputation, lost productivity due to presenteeism and more.  We can show how productivity is not a function of time spent on site and many of the traditional demands on employees to bear the heat of the crucible of their line-manager’s making is nothing but detrimental.

I sat with a young man last year, a graduate at a professional services company who pulled me to one side after a meeting with their manager about wellbeing. As he started to speak, he sobbed like his heart was breaking.  He talked about how he lived in a shabby house-share with students in zone 8 and how the Partner for his business, although not his direct manager, had told all the graduates they should be in work before the senior people and not leave until after they leave “if they were serious about ‘making it’ in this business”.

So this young man – 21 years old – got up at 4:30am, to leave at 5am to walk to a bus stop, to get a tube and make it into the central London office right at 7am. At night he waited with his peers, his eyes drooping as his manager and the Partner “chatted about nothing” and then followed the Partner out at a distance, noticed he didn’t hail a cab, but walked 100m across the street to their pied-à-terre and dipped inside as this young man started a two hour journey home.

This employee was exhausted, there was no way he could have been as effective and productive as he was able.  Before he left, he handed me a piece of paper and said “they think this is wellbeing”. He literally ran away to a bathroom and in my hand he’d left a voucher for 10% discount on the gym right next to the office.

This is not how we get the best out of our people – this is not an example of a culture of wellbeing or leaders who understand what it really takes to sustainably engage their people to perform at the highest level.  This young man wasn’t a ‘soft’ Millennial. He was driven and committed to the detriment of his own health. He signed on to long-term sick leave before exiting the company, another asset lost to a disregard for employee wellbeing.

In the UK, the cost of work-related stress alone was an astounding £6.5bn (and that was according to a 2015 study). We know that depression and burn out impact a third of employees, according to a paper by the Depression Alliance alongside research from London School of Economics and King’s College London, who estimated that the annual cost to European businesses of depression alone, was £77bn. 

A ‘wellbeing culture’ must be promoted and preserved in workplaces that want to achieve sustainable success in turbulent times.  This doesn’t mean ‘business-as-usual’ leadership and processes, while outsourcing health with gym vouchers. It means accepting that the place where increasing numbers of employees spend 10 to 12 hours of their day before bringing two to three hours of work home with them, bears a significant responsibility itself for becoming a place that speaks out for its people.  This is not to coddle or pander employees, but rather so that high demands of excellence, commitment and workload can continue to be realistically placed – and met – by a resilient and engaged workforce, with a management that understands diminishing returns, work-life-balance and sustainable leadership – not in theory, but in practice.

To find out how our Anatomy of Wellbeing workshops can help your organisation improve wellbeing, get in touch.



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