How to genuinely promote wellbeing at work
July 5, 2019 6:16 AM   Subscribe

What have you or your workplace done to improve employee wellbeing without making it all about individual resilience?

I am going to volunteer to lead a workplace wellbeing group and want your ideas. The main reason I'm volunteering is because every single other one of these groups I've seen has been focused on individualising the problems of workplace anxiety through promoting stress management courses and things like yoga at the expense of dealing with the actual causes of stress and anxiety.

Has your workplace got a wellbeing group that has avoided that pitfall? What did they try and what worked?

My instincts are that the group should start by trying to identify the main causes of poor wellbeing, work up possible solutions and secure senior support for enacting them, but I'm totally happy to run mindfulness sessions, stress management courses, wellbeing walks and so on alongside that work. They're just not sufficient on their own.

I should add that I'm in the UK and that the organisation I work for is fully signed up to flexible working practices (home working, flexi-time, compressed hours, whatever), has better than average annual leave, and is generally considered one of the better employers for employee rights.
posted by knapah to Work & Money (11 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
We have a similar group where I work and we've taken the approach of identifying major problems, winnowing it down to 4 projects for this year, dividing into subteams, and writing up a project plan with each subteam. This plan describes what needs to change, lists concrete actions, resources for references about what to do and other programs at other workplaces, lists individuals responsible, includes a timeline. We are now creating the approvals process for this - it goes first to our senior management team for concept approval, then after questions are cleared it goes to a department heads structure for deeper consideration and problem-solving of the tactical stuff.
posted by Miko at 6:59 AM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

One thing I liked was when my work provided daily fruit delivery - just a big box of apples and bananas in the kitchen. It took care of the mental load of remembering snacks, it was a healthy option and completely unobtrusive
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:45 AM on July 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

I agree with you that well-being correlates with alleviating stress and would add that it also improves with the extent to which employees are shown, in concrete ways, that they're valued and respected. Before I started my company, I met a guy responsible for managing manufacturing lines employing about 350 people. He said that the vast majority of his job consisted of putting systems in place so that they could adapt, on the fly, to the employees' large life events, whether positive or negative, from moving to having a sick family member. He said that large events, which he defined as something that requires a week or two of the company's forbearance, occur, for everyone, about every three years and so he typically had to deal with 2-3 employees getting knocked out of the system every week, plus the usual spate of vacations and sick days. It took him a few years to figure this out and change the systems to improve the resiliency of the manufacturing line.

But where I'm going with this is that he told me that he realized that the same systems could be used to improve employee well-being in the course of the ordinary work week. For example, the cross-training implemented to fill gaps in the line could be leveraged to relieve boredom, give employees opportunities to learn new skills, reduce RSIs, contribute new ideas and systemic solutions, get to now/rely on each other, feel empathy for what other positions required, etc. It allowed for simple things like making it easier for employees to visit the rest rooms on demand instead of just during scheduled breaks. It also became the means by which employees could take partial days off, e.g., to see the proverbial school play or whatever., without throwing a spanner into production. All of this (and more) reduced turnover. Productivity improved although the fear from above was that it would decline what with some positions being filled by less-experienced employees.

This stuck with me, and so I tried to adapt it to my company, even though we didn't make widgets. I provided the usual: good health care insurance, flexible benefits programs, gym memberships, work-from-home options, flexible work weeks, etc. but then also:

  • Eliminated specific quantities of sick days and personal time: if you're sick or have a commitment, don't come in and take as much time as necessary and we'll trust that you'll figure out how to accommodate the situation, including asking for help. Initially this struck people as really odd, but it helped people set aside the stress and worry about having to save sick time for their kids and ailing parents. And it meant that they could still take vacations since no one had to burn those days off to deal with other matters. Several employees who suffered significant crises became incredibly loyal to the firm as a result. [We did have other ways of measuring contributions and productivity (specific to my industry)].

  • Made the books public. I wanted employees to see how the pieces fit together; it made for better decision-making and generated a lot of ideas about how we could improve profitability. When times were tough, they could also see our progress digging out of the hole. Interestingly, some employees never looked at the information; maybe they found it stressful.

  • Ensured that everyone working on a given project got to visit the client (mostly destinations and attractions) so they understood why their work mattered to real places and people.

  • Matched charitable donations to acknowledge and show respect for causes employees cared about.

  • Respected personal time; we never contacted people during their vacations, brought people home from the road every weekend (unless they wanted to explore the area, in which case we paid for their hotel rooms and rental cars), paid for dinner and taxis home if people worked late, etc.

  • Set up a system so employees could air and discuss issues, with each other and with me, while protecting their anonymity and building corporate culture.

    So none of this was wellness per se, but these types of policies and practices reflected concern about and regard for employees' well-being, and it all helped make for a better work life and workplace.

  • posted by carmicha at 7:58 AM on July 5, 2019 [90 favorites]

    Formalize or improve your rules about on-call, online, and out of office work. Is it possible for someone to do work at home or come in to cover someone else's shift in an urgent situation? Make policy about those things.

    The very best of these IME have individual and managerial on-call budgets, so Joe can't be called in more than a particular number of hours or occasions in a quarter, and Joe's boss Jane has to answer to her boss for how much on-call or unplanned work she asks of her reports.

    Illness, family emergency, poor planning, bad weather, and other problems happen and aren't anybody's fault - but if some people don't get a proper weekend for a month, there's a serious structural wellness problem.
    posted by bagel at 8:23 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

    Yeah, having programs like this feels hollow if there's no path available to meaningfully address systemic issues. In scrum, there's the concept of impediments or blockers, and a team consistently overworking or in crunch time or even just very unhappy is in itself an impediment. In scaled scrum, there is a concept of an executive action team that tasks company leaders with ensuring that any issues raised by teams to a company-wide level are dealt with in some way. So there's a clear escalation path and resolution method for issues that are affecting individual well-being. In some situations, there's still no good answer, but for companies that have this, there's at least one way of surfacing problems to get action, alongside any program guiding folks on individual mindfulness or mental health and well-being.
    posted by limeonaire at 8:33 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

    Create a policy not to check email outside work hours (bonus: make it impossible to check email outside work hours).
    posted by pinochiette at 8:57 AM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

    My company has walking groups that go for 15-20min morning and afternoon walks and this is over and above lunch breaks. Often the managers go too. It’s part of the culture and encouraged! It’s a great mental break and stress relief.
    posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:03 AM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

    Create a culture of positive feedback - thank people for their work, calling out the good things hat have happened etc

    Create a mechanism for anonymous feedback, address the issues that affect the majority, and be seen to do so. For example, we did one and people felt that there wasn't a plan. There actually were quite detailed and agile plans, but they weren't communicated well enough so we went through them, and explained the main things that we knew might cause problems with delivery and how we would adapt to deal with them.

    Encourage people to only work their hours, expect management to set a good example by taking time back if you have a peak-y workload.

    Default answer is yes on people things. So yes you can work from home, yes you can take leave. Unless there's a genuine business need in which case you find the next best alternative.

    My workplace is pretty good but used to be toxic. The culture shift is best exemplified by these things. It's still a work in progress on wellbeing, but because we do this kind of thing when we also offer yoga it's not an insult.
    posted by plonkee at 11:35 AM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

    I run a mental health support service in England and can completely understand how frustrating it is for you. Employers want and do not want to confront and affirm the status of mental health in the office.

    My best advice is:

    1. Start with safeguarding. Any activity, no matter how small, must start with knowledge of how to safeguard the needs of the individual(s) involved. A safeguarding policy is a highly important step in creating oversight of the process and either in-house or independent supervision for it. The sell is ISO 9001:2015. Safeguarding is a quality management tool. Safeguarding ensures confidentiality as much as it enables the ombudsman to make a trusted referral to HR or an external support worker who can escalate the issue.

    2. Employees guide their participation. Do not make participation mandatory. Instead run a meeting and budget for it each week. Cater it. Let people attend on company time but use the first year or 18 months to gauge seasonal trends which may trigger larger than normal participation. Be prepared for no one showing up.

    3. Trust referral partners to do their job. Look for organisations who offer low cost counselling but offer a monthly company wide account that accrues. You'll find a balance. I suggest $5 a month per head. Negotiate for a better rate. I have gotten providers for as little as $28 an hour.

    4. Don't require success stories. Most people want progress. Mental health support may enable those who want to leave you behind to leave amicably. It may reveal chronic illness or other conditions that need complex care requiring personal insurance. Success is retention and quality management. Aiming for no complaints about the mental health support program is a huge goal that is achievable - when you start safeguarding training!
    posted by parmanparman at 3:01 PM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

    posted by parmanparman at 3:09 PM on July 5, 2019

    While it was a super problematic system in a lot of ways, having a pool of secretaries to manage diaries and correspondence made for much better work days for a lot of people. I feel that these days, managing the nonproductive busy work of office life is one of the things people complain about most, even when (or especially when) they otherwise love their work. Now, you may not be able hire admin assistants, but maybe you could brainstorm about ways to make admin tasks, such as setting up meetings and nonessential work correspondence, more streamlined and consciously create an office culture which tries to minimise busy work for others.
    posted by tavegyl at 12:50 PM on July 6, 2019

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