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Wellbeing Strategies that work

  • 3 min read

Designing Wellbeing Strategies that actually work

“Bosses want you to be well – but they may be making you ill.” This was the first attention-grabbing line of a recent article in the Guardian newspaper. It referred to the findings of an Oxford University study exploring the success, or otherwise, of a gamut of workplace wellbeing interventions. (more here).

The research, by William Fleming, found that almost none of these interventions had any statistically significant impact on worker wellbeing or job satisfaction. Employees didn’t feel a greater sense of belonging, or a reduction in the perception of time pressures. They didn’t feel supported or notice any improvement in workplace relationships. In fact, the study concluded that sometimes wellbeing interventions, such as workplace resilience and mindfulness training, had a slightly negative impact on employees’ self-rated mental health.

Clearly, employers have understood that healthy and happy employees are more productive and engaged and they are trying to do something. Globally, businesses spend billions on wellness initiatives, but if this study, and others like it, are to be believed, these initiatives are not moving the needle on wellbeing. Indeed, despite the good intentions, they might even be exacerbating the very problem they’re trying to address.

A scattergun approach

“It seems to me that the biggest problem with wellbeing programmes is that they are not joined up”, is the reflection of Osmond Ergonomics’ MD Guy Osmond. “Businesses know they need to do something, but they’re not sure what, so they throw everything at it and see what sticks. Taking a scattergun approach like this is very unlikely to achieve what you want.”

Rather than providing an array of sticking plaster wellbeing offerings, the mission

for managers is to create an environment where impediments to productivity and wellbeing are removed. That could cover topics as diverse as ensuring that workstations are ergonomically sound to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal issues or embedding a culture where people feel safe and supported.

In fact, every element of a working environment touches on wellbeing, from pay and job security, through training and mentoring opportunities to working procedures which allow flexibility and autonomy.

Research has also shown that streamlining processes by cutting back on unnecessary bureaucracy, reducing meetings and simplifying workflows can also alleviate stress and frustration. Well-trained, supportive managers also make a difference to day-to-day employee wellbeing, as anyone who has ever had a bad manager can tell you!

On the flip side, a culture of fear and blame will only undermine wellbeing and performance (see the reports into failing NHS maternity services over recent years for proof of that). Cultivating an environment where employees feel safe to raise opinions and concerns is key. Fostering a culture of prioritising wellness, where staff feel safe to ask for help and are given what they need to be healthy and successful, will produce the real benefits.

Flemming’s research, with which this blog began, is clear: reducing stressors is far more effective than simply adding coping mechanisms. This will be no surprise for those who like to identify the cause rather than treat the symptoms. That message is also similar to the findings of a report published last year - Organisational Wellbeing Interventions: Case Studies from the NHS - which showed wellbeing interventions that target the organisation and staff working environment work better than those that focus solely on supporting individuals.

Bespoke individual support

However, while creating a working environment which minimises stressors is vital, there will always be a place for supporting individuals when they need it.

The one-size-all fits approach isn’t going to cut it. Guy adds: “You might try to incentivise exercise by offering a gym membership, but while a few more people might go a few times, mostly it will be the people who were already using a gym, except now they’re getting it for free!

“The problem with generalised wellbeing interventions and incentives is that they suit some people and not others. So, increasingly we’re seeing employers investing in personalised interventions – from paying for physiotherapy, to funding smoking cessation support, to one-to-one mental health counselling.”

Rather than relying on quick fixes and fashionable solutions, investing in strategic improvements and fostering a supportive work culture to remove stress factors are key fundamentals. Then offering bespoke interventions tailored to the needs of individuals will provide the route to designing workplace wellbeing programmes that actually work. Otherwise you risk not only wasting money and time, but potentially making things worse!

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