There are sound economic reasons for doing this, but we discuss those elsewhere; this is about how you go about setting up – and maintaining – an inherently healthy workplace.
Salary is a bribe that helps employees put up with the stresses of work. Benefits are bribes that help employees put up with a salary that is not enough to help them put up with the stresses of work. Mental Health policies and wellbeing initiatives are sticking-plasters put on to keep down the pain caused by the stresses of work. This is a (stressful) muddle, so let’s take a walk in the imagination, going upstream of the problems, to look at how to construct an Inherently Healthy Workplace that doesn’t make people ill. What does that look like, and how would you make it happen?
Accept that your people are vulnerable. Almost everything is a machine now, capable of scaling up without serious pain if the server is beefy enough. Your people are the one element in the organisation that can do what the machines can’t do, but they can only do that because they have precious abilities that the machines lack. That’s why you have them, but with the abilities come vulnerabilities, and responsibilities for the management.
To work well, these people need certain things to be right. They need to feel secure, for example, and to be part of a social group that works well. They need clear information, adequate training and tools so they can do their tasks, and they need to have their contribution recognised, among other things. If any of these needs are compromised they will feel unhappy, and then unwell. This may manifest in different ways, each containing a message for managers who will read it.
Owners, boards, managers and staff have to share a new picture of health at work. Currently we view wellbeing, mental health, sickness rates and productivity as separate issues, with policies and procedures for each. However, when you look at the way stresses impact on staff’s ability to think, collaborate, communicate and innovate, and how long-term stress leads to physical changes and the increased chance of diagnosable illness, it’s clear that these are just different manifestations of the stresses that lurk in the culture and environment at work. For a longer look at these connections please read our white paper ‘A practical 8-point guide to stress, anxiety, mental health, resilience and wellbeing for HR Directors‘.
The whole organisation has to commit to finding out where the stresses are coming from, and who is suffering what. WeThrive is one obvious way to do this, but the main thing is to get it done. You’ll need to diagnose the obvious problems of under-resourcing, skill deficits, time shortages and so on, but that’s the easy bit. You’ll also need to be able to spot the unconscious stresses; the social and emotional problems that we don’t tend to discuss or even have names for in some cases, yet which still have the capacity to disrupt our functioning and wind us up, even to the point of becoming ill. If you’re going to construct your own questionnaire to do this we suggest reading up on Maslow, Herzberg and Self-Determination Theory, and then add modern context with Dan Pink and Griffin and Tyrrell. The WeThrive 4C model for intelligent performance is a synthesis of all these ideas, covering all the areas where stresses will come from in the workplace, so using WeThrive could save time and effort, particularly if you want a ready-made solution that delivers real-time analysis and can handle large numbers of staff with no virtually administration from your side.
Once you have a good picture of the root causes of unhappiness in your company, you have to do something straight away. If you want useful change to start – and to stick – the key thing is to learn quickly and implement responses quickly. There is very little that is more useless, in terms of learning, than to send out a survey, wait weeks or months for the results, then take weeks for the board to consider the results, then think about communicating with staff. So, before you even start an exercise like this, commit to putting time and resources into talking through the issues and developing solutions straight away, in collaboration with the team.
Don’t be disappointed, but you have to keep at it. This is partly because some people will change and then default back to their old behaviour when problems pop up – this is not a sign of stubbornness or whatever, just a normal part of the cycle of change. The best way to insure against it is to set up the changes so that they meet the needs of the staff better than the old ways did, but even so there will still be occasions when people un-change and need further help to embed the new approaches. The other reason for repeating the exercise fairly regularly is that stuff happens – no company is immune from the daily flow of world events, nor should it be. So, the team have to be surveyed periodically to find out what has worked and what needs more attention. The time involved will repay the organisation many times over. However, with repeated iterations the whole organisation will also become more aware of the things that were previously unconscious, staff should become more able to talk to each other about them, and in time this communication may make it possible to increase the interval between formal surveys.
Now, there will be some people who still become ill, even though the workplace stresses on them seem innocuous enough. This may because they have a lower tolerance to stress, or because they have pressures on them from outside work. In these cases the organisation will still need to help, but there will be fewer such cases if the workplace is not contributing to their problems. As a minimum employers should have a policy on mental health at work that meets the HSE requirements, and many employers may find it useful to become a Mindful Employer. There’s more on this in our guide.
However, we suggest that employers have at least as great a duty to those employees who are not diagnosably ill. That is because the amount of harm done to these individuals and their families by stresses that no-one even notices is far, far greater – affecting perhaps 80% of all employees.
Given that we know this stress is reducing employees’ ability to think, communication skills, creativity, collaborativeness and productivity, the opportunity for employers is simply enormous. Try WeThrive today, free, to find out what you didn’t know about the stresses in your own organisation.