Well-being at work: how to improve it and what makes it worse

Well-being at work: how to improve it and what makes it worse

Ian Edwards has long sought to improve the well-being of Nomura employees, but in recent years he has observed new pressures on their physical and mental health, productivity and retention in the workforce.

As health and safety manager for the Japanese bank’s UK operations, he has seen a noticeable increase in stress related to caring for family members during and since the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as growing financial worries and fear of climate change.

“We’ve seen social anxiety increase,” he says. “There are also a whole range of financial and environmental concerns that affect our employees. They worry about where their fish [in their diet] where are they coming from, if the house will be flooded.

New data from more than 8,500 employees from 65 organizations taking part in Britain’s healthiest workplace – a survey conducted by health insurer Vitality with partners including the Financial Times, and which has consistently ranked Nomura as a successful actor – underline his point of view.

It shows an increase in mental health problems and anxiety compared to previous years, as well as an increase in sickness absence and “presenteeism” or unproductive work. It also highlights the effects of recent trends, including the sharp increase in remote working triggered by shutdowns and infection control measures in response to Covid-19.

The survey suggests that employees who are able to adopt hybrid work models – balancing their time between the office and home – have the highest levels of job satisfaction and the lowest levels of presenteeism and absenteeism. The least productive were those who had to be away from home in non-office workplaces, such as a factory or retail store.

Since the onset of Covid-19 in particular, employers have shown an increased interest in staff wellbeing as they seek to support the continued growth of their organisations. They explored new approaches and tools, from mindfulness applications to restructuring roles and responsibilities. This sparked a thriving wellness industry offering programs that claim to improve health.

But experts who study the subject warn that there is a lack of rigorous research into cause and effect, and what interventions really work. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an economist at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, says: “There is little ‘gold standard’ evidence with randomized controlled trials. There are a lot of small drivers that are often not well rated or reported.

“There’s a really good piece of evidence that you can’t get out of these more structural issues that underpin mental and physical health through yoga. That’s not to say mindfulness is a bad thing, but it doesn’t address the core structural causes.

He points to a rigorous analysis published in 2019 called the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study, which explored the two-year effects of a comprehensive workplace wellness program called iThrive at Urbana-Champaign in the United States.

He concluded that even though program workers reported being healthy, there was a strong selection bias: those who participated already tended to be wealthier and healthier, while those employees who could have benefited the most – including smokers and those who already had higher healthcare costs – did not engage.

Recent research by De Neve at BT, the telecommunications company, has shown a link between the presence of windows in offices – giving call center staff visual exposure to the weather – and their mood and productivity levels, which increased when they were happier.

However, he is careful not to draw simple conclusions about the applicability of such results in practice. It points to broader research on the importance to well-being of strong workplace social networks, support teams, mentoring, individual autonomy, flexibility and a sense of purpose.

Others share his view on the need to address these deeper structural issues related to management style and work culture. Nancy Hey, Executive Director of the What Works Center for Wellbeing, says, “Meaningful work, relationships and flexibility are key drivers of employee wellbeing at work.

She argues that there has been an improvement in recent years as employers have addressed these broader issues. Those with the best results had already appointed chief medical officers before the pandemic began and introduced strategies for physical and mental well-being – including plans for more flexible working.

But it also highlights the struggles of line managers, who are key in trying to foster a more supportive work culture while not having full freedom to do so – and while also grappling with the same issues as those that they supervise. “They are often miserable and at an age of misery themselves.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of books on the subject, including die for paypoints to an even more existential cause of the poor well-being of employees at work: economic insecurity around wages and employment.

“Forty years of research on the effects of layoffs show that they lead to increased rates of suicide, overeating, alcohol, smoking and drug use,” he says. He argues that at the height of the pandemic, many employers embraced wellness programs as they worried about recruiting and retaining staff. But their commitment has quickly faded since the recent economic downturn.

Citing the recent tech jobs crisis, he says: “A year ago they said they were worried, but as soon as there’s a change in the economy, it all goes away. out the window and they let people go. If employers were really concerned, they would not increase precariousness.

He points to a few exceptions among the companies that have resisted these cyclical hiring and firing policies: Southwest Airlines, the outdoor equipment manufacturer Patagonia and Barry-Wehmiller, the industrial group, which during the Great Recession of 2008 -09 shared the pain by cutting salaries rather than downsizing.

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Bob Chapman, President and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, argued for the importance of empathetic management in contrast to what he described earlier this year as a more typical trend: “Leadership or traditional management conditions us to see people as functions, to get them to do what we want to be successful, not because we care about them.

For Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School and co-founder of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, the most effective measures to improve employee wellbeing would be to give equal weight to “people skills” and intelligence alongside technical skills when recruiting or promoting supervisors.

It also says employers should appoint a non-executive director and senior manager responsible for health and wellbeing; and introduce regular surveys and reports to measure the effects on the workforce.

Even for companies like Nomura that have the resources and commitment to wellness, identifying the right policies and overcoming external pressures beyond their control remain significant constraints.

Edwards of Nomura points out that while remote and hybrid working has simplified his supervisors’ training efforts, it has reduced the benefits of human contact in the office. “It gives people more flexibility, but they’re not seeing the health benefits yet.”

And no matter how much the bank does to support staff, its ability to influence the external factors that weigh on staff well-being is limited. “You think employees are healthier, then you get Brexit or war in Ukraine and it totally changes the rules of the game.”

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