When Workplace Wellbeing Doesn’t Work

With World Mental Health Day putting workplace wellbeing in its crosshairs this year, it is worth asking  what workplace wellbeing actually 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 interest in 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.