When Workplace Wellbeing Doesn’t Work

With World Mental Health Day putting workplace wellbeing in its crosshairs this year, I have been reflecting on what workplace wellbeing is, as an agenda, as a practice and as an outcome that impacts on individual people’s lives.

Since our work at Light Box began back in 2009, the wave of public interestin wellbeing and mental health has consistently gathered pace. It’s now hard to open a Sunday supplement or newspaper and not stumble across another mental-health story.

The appetite to discuss wellbeing is now huge, along with the surge of initiatives to help people and organisations promote it.

It’s unarguably a sign of progress that some of the stigma that surrounds mental-health has fallen away as a consequence of this upswing in interest, and yet the sceptic in me is uncomfortably aware of how the wellbeing agenda is vulnerable to being hijacked and distorted, and worryingly, how it can be used to eclipse some hard realities that need to be examined.

Played out in the workplace, the wellbeing agenda can go one of two ways.

I’ve heard some great stories about staff teams being treated to wellbeing and resilience training, only to be handed their redundancy notices a few weeks later. Applied cynically, perfunctory wellbeing measures taken in the workplace can be a way of sending staff the message: ‘Can’t cope with unreasonably big workloads / long hours / low pay / scant annual leave? Hmmm, maybe you should be working a bit harder on your well-being, then.’

Done well though, workplace wellbeing can be the basis of thoughtful action for change – not least a change in organisational culture, led from the top. It can be the opportunity for increased self-awareness, assertiveness, improved relationships and yes, self care.

If you get it right, a focus on workplace wellbeing can ensure that the workplace is a source of camaraderie and a place that’s free of blame culture. That it’s a place where each person is allowed to be vulnerable in some way and is called upon to use their particular strengths to create shared value. When the workplace presents an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something and be thanked for your contribution, then it becomes a haven of security and a source of positive identity in an unpredictable and often difficult world.

In the UK, 11.7 million work days were lost this past year alone due to stress, depression or anxiety related sick leave, and studies consistently show that people are at their most creative and productive on the job when they are feeling happy. The science and statistics speak for themselves: workplace wellbeing is too important to get wrong.

Perhaps a good first step for any organisation with a genuine interest in this, is an honest, inclusive conversation about what works for people’s wellbeing in the workplace, and what works against it.

Lucy Duggan

Two Ways of Working

When I am working well, it feels wonderful. Energy flows along, things get done, tasks get tackled one by one. There’s few things better than that feeling you get when the day draws to a close, that you’ve been productive and moved things on in one way or another.

When I am not working well, it feels very different. There is a tinge of panic. And a masochism. It feels like swimming against a current. Whatever I have done well, in the days or weeks before, it is not enough, and worse, it is not relevant. It is as if all the productive, positive action that has gone before dissolves and has no bearing, and I’m pushing the gas pedal down hard on an empty tank of fuel.

At times I mistakenly identify this second way of working as the necessary drive to keep going that all success depends on. A healthy no pain, no gain mentality.

But it is not. It’s an impatience, and ultimately it fuels discouragement and demotivation. This way of working quietly erodes my confidence in my ability to solve problems as they arise and do well. And when my confidence is lowered, I don’t approach opportunities in the same way, I don’t act in a bold, creative manner. Instead I shrink back and I don’t do so well. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A trap.

It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of this second way of working, and stay unwittingly trapped inside it all day until it spits you out at home time feeling pessimistic, stressed and useless. When this happens it feels so horrible, and it so greatly undermines any gains that the first way of working accrues, that I have decided to start watching out for it more and to take its menace more seriously.

So next time I spot it taking over I am going to go on strike against myself for half an hour, have a walk and some self-talk reminding myself that working hard is meant to feel good, not bad.

What’s Next versus What’s Now

My mind is always drifting into the future, and the influence that the future has on my mind-set is mixed. On the one hand it makes me hopeful. On the other hand it scares me.

Whatever its effects, the main thing I try to remember about the future is that it is a mythical place. i.e. it does not exist.

And it never will.

When I’m dreaming of how next year things could be better – how the summer I have could be more fun than the one just gone, how earnings could go up, how I could support my family and close friends is bigger, more extravagant and elaborate ways, when I’m preoccupying myself with what’s next – I’m loosing sight of what’s now.

And what’s now is the one and only thing I’ll ever have any influence over. Whether it is my relationships, how I treat myself or my approach to work. The micro choices, the actions and inactions. Is there nice music on in the morning when I get ready for work, or is there not? Do I bomb it down the road at my usual soldiers pace or do I not? Do I text a friend on their first day of a new job or do I not? The more I try to turn my gaze away from the future, the more I see a kaleidoscope of choices to be made in the now.

Each one tiny. Each one important.

When I’m looking after the now the future looks after itself. And the future become less scary.

There’s a James Joyce quote I’d like to leave you with, one that my beloved Granny – a wise, strong and endlessly kind woman, and a Jewish German refugee who lived to the age of 98 – used to faithfully inscribe in the cover of every pocket diary she had:

“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”

Lucy Duggan

The Draining Constraint of Endless Complaint

As part of our resilience training at Light Box, we advocate the powerful impact that actively expressing more gratitude can have on our productivity, our relationships and our lives.

That gratitude can be deliberately harnessed for increased wellbeing has become a fairly well-known, scientifically supported fact in recent years. Less talked about and comparatively under-researched however, is the flip side of the gratitude coin; complaint.

Complaint is a particularly malign type of passivity. And an insidious one. It quietly invades our thoughts and conversations. It comes in almost infinite shades, ranging from technicolour, teeth gnashing lamentations (the preserve perhaps of the more dramatic among us), to the low level but no less toxic whinges that can so easily coalesce to form the background noise of our days.

I set up a little experiment with myself at the beginning of the summer to see what would happen if I consciously tried to stop complaining. Very soon I was appalled to discover that despite the fact that I consider myself to be an optimistic and reasonably cheerful person, so many of my thoughts, throw away remarks and more involved conversations with friends were riddled with complaint. Sometimes in the guise of a rant, other times dressed up as humour, and often simply masquerading as neutral observations. The more I looked out for it the more I saw it. It was everywhere.

Once I’d picked myself up off the floor from the shocking realisation that I was a colossal whinger, I started to pull myself up on it and bit by bit start to iron out the habit of complaint I had unwittingly fallen into.

After one or two weeks of vigilance, the complaint impulse began to fade and avoiding it got a lot easier. And that’s when strange things started to happen. I found I had far more energy. I was able to focus more on work, drop the busy fool act and get seriously productive. Relationships felt lighter and life felt less heavy. More fun. I think I achieved more throughout June and July than the whole previous year and I am convinced this experiment has something to do with it.

Since then I must admit I’ve back-slid a bit into my old whingey ways, but I’m glad I know what rewards await me when I decide to tackle them once again.

Lucy Duggan