Wellbeing at Work

Friday, June 1, 2007 - 11:34

Ensuring staff wellbeing sounds like commonsense. But companies that value happy workers need to have a policy flexible enough to accommodate the varied needs of today’s employees.

In tangible and intangible ways, work means fulfilment to many people. For management, the demands of the modern workplace means consideration for issues of staff wellbeing. The following two features look at what wellbeing means, and the dramatic impact that depression and stress have on people and industry in Australia.

When Text 100 New Zealand’s Country Manager, Gabrielle Tourelle, was diagnosed in 2005 with breast cancer, one of the first people she called was her immediate superior. She was immediately told, “Don’t bother going back into the office, go straight home. Your job now is to get well.” Text 100, a public relations firm, prides itself on a progressive management culture that includes flexible working arrangements such as working from home, generous leave entitlements and two “doona” or “mental health” days per year.

Even as a senior, long-serving employee, Tourelle was pleasantly surprised at the response she received and the amount of ongoing support the company provided her. A single point of contact between her and the company was quickly established so she wasn’t being plagued by calls from different people in the organisation; her job was held open for her for several months while she underwent radiotherapy and later, surgery. When Tourelle felt ready to return to work, the only question was whether she would return to her previous position working five days a week, or take up a role as the regional human resources manager, which would give her the option of working only three days a week.

Tourelle’s case might be an unusual example, but it illustrates a growing trend for companies to focus on the wellbeing of their managers and employees.

With a tight labour market a major restraint on many companies, this new emphasis is not entirely altruistic. Worldwide research clearly shows that happy, healthy employees are more productive and more likely to stay on in a company with the right work environment.

Creating wellbeing

How to create wellbeing at work is not as easy as it seems. This is partly because not everyone has the same idea of what it actually is. Even the Macquarie Dictionary is a bit vague, defining wellbeing as “a good or satisfactory condition of existence; welfare”.

For health and wellbeing consultant and diabetes researcher, Dr Adam Fraser, wellbeing is an entirely individual matter. “It’s different for different people, but I see it as wellbeing of both mind and body. It’s being physically healthy with the energy to get through the day, but also the absence of excessive stress and mental health issues. It’s a state of mind where you’re relaxed and have control over your emotions, mental state and outlook.” Also, there is often a disconnect between managers and employees as to what constitutes wellbeing. Managers tend to define wellbeing in terms of productivity, whereas employees define it in other ways.”

Australian Health Management (ahm) General Manager Total Health, Michelle Spooner, says that some of the biggest drivers for individuals’ wellbeing are: “Satisfaction with their life and their perception of their health. It’s less about the physical things such as a nice work environment, or good relationships with people; these things are essential, but at the end of the day it comes down to how they feel about themselves. Organisations looking after employees’ wellbeing have to do all those things, but in the final analysis it’s about the person and how they feel about themselves.”

Zaffyre International Chairman, Margot Cairnes, believes wellbeing is about community, and that when employees feel their workmates are like friends, they feel like they belong, and their wellbeing goes up. It’s a nice idea, but given that most companies are continually trying to do more with less, and many people’s jobs are less than satisfying, isn’t such a “touchy feely” concept a bit out of place in a high performance business culture? Not necessarily, she says.

“Being nice has nothing to do with it. Communities aren’t full of nice people, communities are full of people with a common goal or aim. But how does a manager create that feeling of staff wanting to be there? They don’t want to do it at their own expense, because if everyone is doing it at their own expense, it’s not sustainable.

“So how does someone look after themselves as human beings, how do they learn and grow and contribute to the common good in a way that is nourishing to them? It’s not the responsibility of the boss – it’s the responsibility of the individual. It is the responsibility of the boss to create that environment, but if people think it is the responsibility of the boss, nothing will satisfy them.”

Flexible definition

By contrast, human capital management services firm DBM’s Vice President, Strategic Accounts Asia Pacific, Karen Faehndrich, believes that organisations are too quick to define what they think is wellbeing and then implement a strategy to deliver it. She believes it’s more important to ensure that right from C-level management down, an organisation’s policies, practices and culture allow people to say with some level of honesty and authenticity what wellbeing means for them.

“For some it means being able to start and finish early to accommodate a hobby, academic pursuit or children. Those people will need flexibility in the workplace to manage their work hours to accommodate a sense of work/life balance, because for them wellbeing usually comes from a sense of having that.

“But the sense of wellbeing for a compulsive worker is very different. They don’t mind working a 12-hour day, they enjoy it. Their wellbeing is all about having a sense of purpose and momentum. Whether someone should be working that hard is a separate debate, but for someone who is highly energised, highly ambitious and focused, a sense of wellbeing is about structure, accountability and a sense of purpose.

“And if you can put that in place in the workplace for them, they’ll feel well and satisfied. The issue of work hours is about flexibility: if I feel as an individual that I’ve been working beyond my means, perhaps to accommodate a special project, having the capacity to steal back time without guilt, allows me a sense of wellbeing.”

Working many hours of unpaid overtime has been de rigueur, especially for the ambitious, in corporate Australia. Nevertheless, many of the more progressive organisations such as creative and professional services firms, which rely almost totally on their human capital, are realising the benefits of flexitime arrangements, which help employees maintain work/life balance. Altis Consulting’s General Manager, John Hoffman, has a less deterministic attitude towards wellbeing strategies. He believes that creating and maintaining wellbeing at work “is about factors such as job design, empowerment to make decisions, staff selection and development, reward and recognition, training and internal communication.” But, the company also has a policy of encouraging people to take time off in lieu. “If someone has put in the hours on a project, they’re encouraged to take a couple of days off and go away for a long weekend.”

This in itself represents a generational shift in attitude that is part of the wellbeing movement, says Australian Human Resources Institute National President Peter Wilson. “For baby boomers, work/life balance meant working hard for 48 weeks of the year, then having four weeks off in the summer holidays. But the modern attitude is more about continuous breaks. People work hard for five, six days straight well into the night, but then they might take a Friday and a Monday off to recharge. Leave is being taken more seriously because people realise that healthier workers are better workers.”

By contrast, Network Appliance Managing Director ANZ, Peter O’Connor believes that wellbeing is induced by being part of a successful team. “Pay, promotion and career development are important but they’re not everything to everybody. Things like being part of a winning team, a company that has the ability to compete and win the lion’s share of the business it contests and have high morale as a result is probably more important than being paid the right amount or where the next promotion might be coming from.”

Psychological contract

Whatever the strategy an organisation pursues to create and maintain wellbeing, it’s important to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk”. Any employee starting with an organisation enters into a psychological contract as a consequence of the interview process, their position description and a range of discussions. DBM’s Faehndrich says, “A sense of wellbeing will be nurtured if that psychological contract is met. If it’s not met on any level, whether it’s the relationship with a manager, peers or direct reports, the view of the organisation’s culture, there’ll be an issue. It’s about understanding and agreeing on expectations, and working to ensure they are met, followed by reviewing, evaluating and reassessing those expectations.”

For any organisation embarking on a health and wellbeing strategy, it’s vital to baseline its existing level in the company, usually through an anonymous questionnaire. While this might seem obvious, ahm’s Spooner says that many organisations don’t do it.

“A company wouldn’t embark on a marketing campaign without baseline research. Yet corporations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on wellbeing initiatives without first measuring the current situation.”
Adam Fraser adds that many companies that do launch such programs tend to be too proscriptive. “Rather than preaching at people, saying ‘you should,’ health and wellbeing programs should work with people. While there’s no doubt that exercise is really good for people, if you’ve got someone who is spending a couple of hours each day commuting, telling them they should workout for an hour will just increase their stress. It’s far better to encourage them to go for a walk for half an hour during their lunchbreak.”

Perhaps the final word is best left for Gabrielle Tourelle. She decided against a return to work full time and is now working three days a week as Text 100’s regional HR manager.

All through her battle with cancer, the company was totally supportive, asking her what was best for her, empowering her to make decisions about her own wellbeing. “There was this balance of always being there in the background while still allowing me to make my own decisions about what was right for me.” When it comes to creating and maintaining wellbeing at work, that’s what it is all about.

The numbers on wellbeing

Wellbeing is a holistic concept by its very nature, and as a result is somewhat difficult to measure. In addition, Australian organisations are generally lagging behind the United States, the United Kingdom and European countries in researching this area. Some recent research conducted by Australian Health Management (ahm) concentrates on the physical health aspect of wellbeing, in particular the costs of “lifestyle” diseases such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

According to ahm, one employee with a serious health problem can cost up to $12,000 a year in lost productivity. With a significant proportion of corporate Australia demonstrating multiple poor health indicators such as obesity, smoking and high blood pressure, much of it due to an ageing workforce, the cost to business can easily be extrapolated to be millions of dollars annually.

Talking the talk or walking the walk?

A company can have the best story in the world, touting benefits such as flexible work hours, training and career development to try and win the war for talent; but it’s pointless unless it follows through with its promises. A Chandler Macleod and Australian Human Resources Institute survey: Employer of Choice: A Reality Cheque, reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, surveyed 2186 job candidates and 436 HR professionals and found a deep-seated cynicism about the EOC label companies attach to themselves. Over 52 per cent of respondents say they rarely or never took notice of a company’s claims to be an EOC, and 24 per cent had worked for an EOC company that hadn’t lived up to its promises. A further 15 per cent had been penalised for trying to access touted EOC benefits, while 26 per cent claimed to know of co-workers who had experienced similar treatment.