Well-being is definitely a hot topic in HR circles at the moment. It’s the ‘must go to’ talk on the conference circuit, while the professional press is full of articles looking at how organisations are investing in everything from mindfulness training to gym memberships.
There’s no doubt UK plc has a serious health issue. More than 23 million days were lost to work-related ill health in 2014/15, with stress, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders the top causes of absence. Obesity is also becoming a serious issue, with news reports this week suggesting that more than 7.6 million new cases of disease linked to being overweight could be diagnosed in the UK during the next 20 years.
But while all these well-being programmes are very laudable (and clearly needed), there’s a debate to be had about whether they are really just a sticking plaster covering up a wider problem. Or as a delegate at a recent HR event I attended said: “Wouldn’t it be better if we stopped driving people so hard and addressed the unrealistic workloads and expectations which are causing many of the problems in the first place?”
It’s a valid point. In our 24/7, always-on society, organisations seem to be expecting people to do more and more with less and less support; to be constantly available to respond to emails and to jump to the demands of clients—however unreasonable. But as the experience in the banking industry, where long hours are the norm, has graphically shown, you can only push people so far before they crack under the strain. Witness the recent pronouncement from Credit Suisse, who have launched a ‘have Friday nights off’ initiative, telling staff to leave by 7pm on a Friday and not to return until at least Saturday lunchtime, unless there is an urgent client request.
While the banking industry may be extreme in the demands it places on its employees, it’s not uncommon for the pressure to be piled on in smaller businesses too, where there are less resources to go round and delivering projects at speed is often critical to maintaining competitive edge.
It’s an unsustainable situation. So what can your business—and you personally as a manager—do to address the root causes of poor employee health and create a culture of wellness?
1. Discourage presenteeism
The jacket on the back of the chair is alive and well, but while ‘presenteeism’ is often talked about in terms of people feeling they have to struggle into work when unwell, it’s now also about people thinking that working longer and harder will gain favour with their bosses.
According to research reported in People Management magazine, 67 % of young workers have exaggerated their workload and worked longer than their contracted hours in a bid to impress their managers and improve their career prospects. Employees take their lead from those above them, so if the senior leadership have workaholic tendencies, a long hours culture will soon take hold. Organisations need to make it clear to staff that while pulling all the stops out to finish an urgent piece of work will be appreciated every now and then, it’s not expected every day.
If you’re a manager yourself, set a good example by going home on time at least a couple of times a week.
2. Encourage people to unplug
Just because you can communicate 24/7, doesn’t mean you should. There’s plenty of research to show that being glued to mobile phones or tablets until the minute we go to bed is seriously impacting on our ability to get a good night’s sleep. There’s also growing evidence that multi-tasking actually hinders, rather than aids productivity, and we’d be better off focusing on one task at a time rather than responding instantly to the latest email.
Encourage people to take regular breaks and turn email and message alerts off for blocks of time so they can concentrate on getting real work done. If you’re a manager, think carefully about the impact of sending emails to your team at midnight or on a Sunday afternoon. You may choose to work then, but when that email pops up on their phone, they may feel under pressure to respond or even guilty that they are not working themselves. You can always put your emails in the drafts folder and send them first thing on Monday morning instead.
This Sunday is National Unplugging Day—give yourself a break from all digital devices and see for yourself how good it makes you feel!
3. Review the way work is organised
Think about whether the way work is organised is putting unnecessary pressure on your team. Avoid scheduling meetings back to back, for example, so that people have time to refresh and prepare in between. Try not to cram too much into the day and make it clear that you see taking a proper lunch hour and getting away from the desk as a priority.
If people are travelling, make sure there is enough space for them to rest and recover from the journey before launching straight in to an important meeting. Look at multi-skilling (either through formal training or informal job shadowing), so that colleagues can help each other out when the going gets tough. Consider the balance of tasks you are asking people to do as well.
People will soon burn out if you put them through one highly challenging, deadline-driven task after another. Provide some variety so that they can occasionally do less stressful, maybe more creative tasks, in between.
4. Clarify goals
Stress often arises in the workplace because people are being pulled in all directions—working on too many things at the same time. They’re busy doing loads of ‘stuff’, but it’s not necessarily the right stuff. The job list gets longer and longer, the pressure builds and before too long people are feeling they can’t cope.
Make sure you sit down with your team on a regular basis to clarify goals and priorities. If people are crystal clear about what they are expected to achieve, and by when, it makes it easier for them to focus and push back on tasks which they are under pressure to complete, but which may be less critical. Make sure that if you are setting people tough targets, you are also equipping them with the support and resources they need to do the job.
5. Make it safe to talk about stress
People are often reluctant to speak up when they are feeling under stress. They are worried that it will make them appear weak and incapable and could affect their career prospects longer term. But brushing issues under the carpet or bottling up feelings of stress and anxiety will just exacerbate the problem.
Managers need to be having regular conversations with their teams about workloads, so that they can bring in extra support or help people find ways of tackling tasks more efficiently. Organisations also need to train managers to recognise the signs of stress among their teams so they can offer support and nip problems in the bud early on. If you’re a manager yourself, don’t feel you have to appear to be sailing calmly through stormy times and have everything sorted. Showing your team that you are human and subject to the same pressures as them will help to create a culture where people feel it’s safe to speak out.