Wellbeing is seen as increasingly important in the workplace. A growing number of companies have wellbeing policies, such as free gym memberships and health insurance, to cater to their employees' needs.
Much of the emphasis and thinking behind these policies has been a bid to improve productivity in organisations. As my colleague Sir Cary Cooper has written, creating cultures that enhance employee wellbeing “are now bottom-line issues – not the ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’”.
Clearly, the bottom line is important. But wellbeing policies designed to improve the performance of an organisation may not always, on their own, be compatible with the wellbeing of staff. New research into the experience of staff in a large secondary school shows how there are at least two kinds of wellbeing at play in organisations.
There’s a “rational” kind, which is tied to things like productivity and efficiency and is boosted by practical offerings like free gym memberships and health insurance. Then there’s also an “emotional” kind of wellbeing, which is more ephemeral and forms the basis of good citizenship. It is fostered through non-exploitative relationships, a culture of respect for negotiated autonomy and mutual support, and offers a caring environment and space for creativity.
Most companies focus on the rational kind of wellbeing, which can undermine emotional wellbeing in three important ways.
1. Making it all about productivity
Wellbeing policies often derive from a rational approach tied to productivity and efficiency. For companies, they can be useful resources to attract and retain the best employees.
At the organisation we studied there were several policies for wellbeing tied to professional development, as well as a health insurance programme to 'get staff back to work quicker'.
This seems like a valid reason to care for your employees' wellbeing. After all, why shouldn’t employers get something back for making efforts to improve wellbeing?
The problem arises when employees feel like they are commodities you are trying to make the most of. Promoting wellbeing schemes purely in the hope of productive returns can undermine an employee’s sense of their company’s genuine concern for them. This can affect their emotional sense of wellbeing.
There is nothing to say of course that emotional and rational wellbeing should not work in tandem, but this requires an overall culture of caring for employees' wellbeing, rather than relying on any one specific policy, or paying lip-service to the idea. From our experience, people don’t like it much when they know that you’re only giving them something because you want something in return or to avoid what they see as your responsibilities towards them.
2. Intruding on personal space
Some people feel that well-being policies intrude into their private lives, particularly in companies that offer genetic testing for employees and free fitbits which track data about the amount of exercise they do.
At the organisation we studied, employees opposed even the health insurance policy. Around half of the staff opted out of it. This largely derived from a distrust of management, and their perceived desire to get staff back into work. People were worried about management having access to personal and health-related information about them and their families.
Another feature of their well-being policy was to standardise teaching with a four point 'excellent lesson plan'. The idea was to make life easier for teachers and provide opportunities for professional development – and wellbeing – but ultimately staff felt that it reduced their autonomy, and left many feeling micro-managed and distant from senior management due to a lack of perceived trust.
3. Not tackling cultural issues
Wellbeing policies can be too focussed at the individual level. They do not always address organisational, cultural or group issues. At their worst, wellbeing policies can be used by employers to downplay the role they themselves might play in staff going off work sick in the first place.
We found in our research that employees hankered for a time when organisations were seen as a family, when wellbeing issues were tackled at an organisational rather than purely individual level. Rather than catering for wellbeing only through the provision of occupational health counselling, for example, employees wanted to see the organisation looking inwards at aspects of its internal culture that might be creating problems – something that they felt had been sidelined in the effort to professionalise and standardise wellbeing policies for best practice.
So, if wellbeing policies remain motivated only by business ends and fail to engage with the emotions of employees, they fail to improve people’s all round wellbeing and can even threaten people’s sense of autonomy. This can lead to a rift between management and employees, which is beneficial to neither.
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