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Occupational Health & Wellbeing Plus

Why we need to shift away from individual-level wellbeing initiatives

With recent research finding that individual-level mental wellbeing initiatives may not always have the desired effect, it is time to listen to employees to find out what’s best for them, writes Richard Bedworth.

Wellbeing apps and mindfulness sessions are often among organisations’ list of employee benefits, and companies have been drawn in by them under the belief that they would improve the lives of their staff. But as new research – based on the responses of more than 46,000 workers from over 200 companies shows – this isn’t entirely true.

Looking at individual mental wellbeing initiatives such as resilience training, stress management and relaxation classes offered by companies, the report by William Fleming at the University of Oxford – based on the results of Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplaces survey – has suggested that “organisational-level interventions, such as changes to scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance reviews, and job design”, would have more impact in improving overall workplace wellbeing.

But are these not offered as standard across all companies? It is my view that they should be ingrained in practices and procedures.

Offering flexible working, for example, should be part of a company’s foundations. Not only does this foster a more engaged and dedicated workforce, but flexible working has been proven to improve mental health. Making this part of a business should be the norm, not the exception.

Likewise, every employee should understand the requirements of their role and have regular meetings with their manager to discuss their performance and growth.

Finally, no one should be expected to fill gaps if staff are off for long periods. If staff shortages, for whatever reason, are putting pressure on teams and individuals, they need to be managed from above, not by the employees on the ground.

These are not ‘nice to haves’ – they are all ‘should haves’ in the modern workplace.

“By considering wider strategies that show employees how valued they are, we can foster a happy and healthy workforce, which can only be good for our businesses.”

When it comes to introducing workplace wellbeing initiatives, the best thing an employer can do is get staff involved. Simply asking questions about what they value and what would make the biggest difference to their wellbeing, using those answers to drive decisions, not only helps employees feel listened to, but may also improve their wellbeing and sentiment towards the organisation.

It is also imperative that leaders understand that every employee is different. While it is true that you will never be able to give every individual exactly what they want, actively engaging employees to discuss changes and developments to their working life can go a long way towards meeting people’s needs. One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work.

Here, then, are my five top tips for employers looking to reshape their approach to employee wellbeing initiatives:

1. Make processes clear and concise. This is such a simple step, but one that is easy to put to the bottom of the pile. All processes that affect workers should be documented and easily accessible. This is true for everything from health and safety procedures to individual job descriptions and performance plans. Removing any blockers and ambiguity makes sure everyone understands both their individual contribution to wider business goals, and the procedures the company has in place.

2. Prioritise safety. This is not just about minimising physical safety risks; poor health and safety protocols have a knock-on impact on mental health. Employees who feel unsafe at work are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, so implementing and clearly communicating safety practices is paramount.

3. Be flexible. Company-wide flexible working can often be one of the easiest processes to implement and can have a hugely positive impact on workers, giving them autonomy and the ability to fit life commitments around work. Flexible working is not just about having a hybrid working policy, however – it is important to give individuals the responsibility for managing their own workload in a way that suits them.

4. Offer regular training and development. Implementing regular training and development is instrumental to creating a workplace that values everyone. By investing in ongoing education, businesses contribute to a culture where employees thrive and feel supported. Learnings can also filter through teams to create a more harmonious workforce.

5. Engage employees. By far the most important step an organisation can take is engaging employees. Every employee has different needs and commitments, and although you will never be able to tick every box for every person, providing the space for them to have a say on changes that affect them can boost morale.

We know that the individual wellbeing initiatives and interventions we have offered up to this point are not necessarily having the desired effect. By considering wider strategies that show employees how valued they are, we can foster a happy and healthy workforce, which can only be good for our businesses.