Well-being in the Workplace

Cranfield School of Management

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Well-Being at Work
By Dr Noeleen Doherty

Stress, anxiety and sleep problems are signs that all is not well. Naturally, such issues can easily extend into the workplace and mean that many working days are lost every year. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health cites symptoms such as poor concentration, low motivation and tiredness as frequent causes of reduced productivity and sickness absence. The cost to organisations is substantial: mental ill-health costs employers an estimated £26bn a year. Aside from the cost, there is a statutory duty under law in the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) which legislates that employers must ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, the health and safety of employees. This includes both physical and mental health.

There is a spectrum of mental health which is linked to individual performance and ultimately to organisational performance. This extends from more serious, less common conditions, through to mild and moderate states such as anxiety and depression with optimum physical, psychological and social well-being at the other end of the scale. It is the combination of the disposition of the individual and the characteristics of the environment which can facilitate well-being and fulfilment.

Although taking care of the well-being of employees is an important and integral part of organisational life, well-being can be a taboo subject. Employees can be reluctant to discuss such issues and managers may feel ill-equipped to deal with them. This sort of denial can compound the situation leading ultimately to poor performance, both individual and organisational.

Today’s challenging working environment

Current organisational life often includes workforce reduction, changing working patterns and high levels of uncertainty, and for individuals such moves can adversely affect their well-being. Especially if poorly handled, organisational change can be a cause of significant stress. In the workplace, it is in the employer’s interests to manage pressure to minimise the potential impact on productivity. Stress shows itself through such symptoms as reduced productivity, absence, increased irritability and increased sensitivity.

Good management practices

Good practice principles help managers to tackle the complexities of maintaining well-being in the workplace. To create a healthy environment, internal and external stakeholders must be enlisted to work together to facilitate a strategic approach to generate awareness, provide support and wellness programmes. Stakeholders include senior managers, line managers, Human Resource managers, Occupational Health professionals and GPs.

Building a coherent business case

Building a coherent business case for wellness interventions is a fundamental starting point. The business case needs to include analysis of the costs of ill-health in terms of dealing with sickness, absence and reduced performance and productivity. These costs need to be balanced with the benefits of health promotion, education and prevention initiatives. A sound business case at board level will raise the profile of wellness in the workplace.

Costs include:

  • cost of medical /related insurance
  • lost productivity and cost of temps
  • sick pay costs
  • administration costs
  • litigation
  • compensation

Cost-benefits of initiatives include:

  • reduced cost of medical cover
  • enhanced productivity
  • reduced costs from absence
  • enhanced reputation as an employer and impact on attracting talent, improved motivation, retention
  • improved safety record and reduced injury
  • better line manager–employee relationships
  • litigation costs and damages payments

Facilitating well-being: Prevention, Promotion and Intervention

There are three key sources of mental health issues:

  1. individual: personal circumstances, health, family and relationship context, individual ability
  2. organisational: physical environment, systems & procedures, pressures, change
  3. cultural: organisation culture, management philosophy and values

Good practice in managing well-being includes

  1. Prevention–removing or reducing risk, e.g. work design;
  2. Promotion- improving the managers’ and organisation’s ability to recognise and deal with problems, and the individual’s response;
  3. Intervention–helping employees to cope with or recover from problems, through counselling as provided by employee assistance programmes (EAPs)

Approaches to managing well-being

My research into organisational practice suggests proactive well-being management might involve elements of the following:

  • Employee surveys and data analysis (e.g. sickness records) to discover whether there is a problem and its extent.
  • Monitoring of organisational characteristics such as culture, values and management practices which impact the work environment and work-life balance
  • Development of HR policies regarding communication, participation, consultation, which recognise the potential impact of work on well-being.
  • HSE recommends that health policies are an integral part of HR policy. These include a Sickness Absence Policy. Monitoring and taking early action on sickness absence is often beneficial. The reformed medical statement (fit note) introduces a system where GPs assess whether an individual ‘may be fit for some work now’ rather than ‘fit to work/not fit to work.
  • Policy should also provide guidance on how to deal with mental ill-health, recording absence, return to work, and on-going communication.
  • Determine actions to control or remove risks, including management practices, training and health programmes to promote mental well-being, for example how to manage stress and individual support systems. Guidance on referral processes and access to specialist referral including EAPs, occupational health, HR, health & safety officer and GPs. The provision of support according to need works best.
  • Monitor and evaluate results.

Time for Action

Forward looking organisations are leading the way, not just in containing the costs, but in establishing a working environment that enhances the well-being of employees and the effectiveness of their organisations. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the workplace is not a cause of stress and ill-health.

Ensuring the well-being of employees is not a luxury but an essential element in organisational life and should be a central concern to all leaders of organisations.

Noeleen Doherty is a Senior Research Fellow at Cranfield University, School of Management.

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