Creating a culture of wellbeing - understanding, measuring and improving

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

As work is a major part of most people's lives, it can significantly affect how happy and healthy individuals are overall, yet many think work detracts from rather than adds to happiness. For example: "The best part of going to work is coming back home at the end of the day"; "Work is just something I'm doing until I win the lottery"; "I need a six-month holiday, twice a year". Or the expressions: "Monday blues", "Post-holiday depression" or "Thank goodness it's Friday" – these all strongly suggest that people feel happier when they are not at work!

Wellbeing at work is a complex concept covering all aspects of people's experience of working life. Physical, psychological, social and financial wellbeing at work collectively allow employees to feel safe and healthy, able to thrive and maximise their potential.

Employee wellbeing is increasingly the focus of senior leadership attention. Progressive organisations aim to create a work environment - and experience - that allows employees to flourish on a personal level, as well as for the benefit of their employers. Investing in this is a legitimate business target as employee wellbeing and organisational functioning go hand in hand. Indeed, improvements in wellbeing often lead to enhanced individual and overall business performance, through improved health, engagement and organisational loyalty.

Unfortunately, in reality work often detracts from rather than adds to happiness. With a short-sighted, unsustainable emphasis on cost-cutting, many companies fail to treat their staff as individuals. Investing in employee wellbeing may mistakenly be considered a trade off with prioritising customers and clients; when in fact business success on this front often stems precisely from treating employees well – who then go onto treat clients and customers well. Organisations should hence adopt a people-centric approach to optimising the day-to-day employee experience.

So, how can organisations promote wellbeing and challenge the causes of work-related dissatisfaction and ill health? The first step is to recognise, understand and measure the factors that directly impact everyday wellbeing. These are:

1. Immediate work environment: This relates largely to the infrastructure, equipment and levels of safety in the workplace – both physical and psychosocial. Working conditions differ drastically from one organisation to another, and between sectors. Besides the range of physical risks associated with primary and secondary industries, it is also important to consider social interactions, particularly with external clients in service/retail organisations, as these can become major sources of stress. Organisations must implement zero tolerance policies for mistreatment inflicted by external customers, or indeed by fellow employees. Maintaining a safe and comfortable work environment, both internally and externally, is a basic but hugely important requirement for employee wellbeing.

  • Our facilities contribute to a good working environment.
  • I am given the necessary resources and equipment to do my job well.

2. Mental and physical health: As musculoskeletal ('bad backs') and mental health problems represent two massive work-related health issues, encouraging healthy behaviours and lifestyles – physically and psychologically - can help avoid huge costs from absenteeism, turnover and lowered productivity. Reactive measures to support those employees struggling with ill health are also essential to prevent longer-term detriments and sickness absence, whether this be through line managers, Occupational Health or an EAP. Moreover, proactive health and wellbeing promotion is strongly associated with positive work-related attitudes and behaviours, boosting employee morale and the organisation's internal reputation as a good employer.

  • This organisation promotes a healthy work environment
  • I can sustain the level of energy I need throughout the work day.
  • This is a psychologically and emotionally healthy place to work.
  • The demands of my job are about right for me.

3. Financial security: This refers to the peace of mind employees feel when they are not worried about losing their jobs and/or their income not being enough to cover their expenses. It also means that employees have enough money saved to cover for contingencies, emergencies and their future financial objectives.

  • I am comfortable with the level of job security in this organisation.
  • People here are paid fairly for the work they do.
  • Thinking about all aspects of my personal financial situation, I am satisfied with where I am today.

4. Interpersonal relationships: This refers to the need to feel connected to and cared about by others. This is very much linked to internal communications within the organisation, co-operation and teamwork, and all internal relationships that employees form with close colleagues – and indeed their line managers. The evolution and development of close relationships is common; the best employers recognise people's natural emotional need to bond and build quality relationships with the people around them, and that company loyalty can be strengthened by such relationships.

  • People care about each other here.
  • There is a "family" or "team" feeling here.

5. Work-life balance: This involves respecting employees' lives outside work by eliminating any potential intrusion of work into their private lives. This includes managing computer-mediated communications which can reach employees outside working hours, such as email communications delivered to personal computers and smart mobile devices. Truly family-friendly organisations can also proactively support family and personal lives through work-family enrichment, by involving families in work-related social events and communications. As with most things in life, moderation and a personally defined sense of balance is vital.

  • People are encouraged to balance their work life and their personal life.
  • I can take time off from work when I think it's necessary.

6. Fulfilment (Autonomy, Meaning and Personal Growth): For employees, feeling that their jobs have deeper meaning is essential for long-term fulfilment. Increasingly, individuals can 'construct' their jobs to maximise meaning, including how to approach and perform daily work-related duties and how to get involved in business-related aspects they enjoy. Meaningfulness can also be found through CSR activity, company values and career development towards long-term goals, allowing a deeper sense of gratification to be experienced at work.

  • When I look at what we accomplish, I feel a sense of pride.
  • I feel I make a difference here.
  • I have enough say in how I do my job.
  • I am developing professionally working here.

Wellbeing is a crucial aspect of corporate social responsibility, and demands attention now.

A growing body of research on employee wellbeing provides evidence-based practice for organisations to optimally manage their workforce. Measuring and investing in the 6 key dimensions outlined above will allow employers to build a culture of wellbeing – not only optimising their employee experience but ensuring that engagement and productivity are sustainable in the long run.

With contributions from Sara Silvonen and Mariana Skirmuntt.

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