Wellbeing in the modern age

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A year ago, I wrote about how ‘competition’ and ‘collaboration’ have both been necessary for survival over the millennia and that it should come as no surprise that these same deep forces influence our wellbeing in the workplace.

For example, if the workplace is highly competitive, then those who have a more collaborative psychology will feel less ‘safe’ or content in their place of work and, doubtless, their wellbeing will suffer. The opposite also applies: an overly-consensual workplace can, for some, lead to stagnation and boredom.

Each workplace has its own culture and, for the most part, different types of people will adapt and influence it. Yet, with Mental Health Awareness Week (13–19 May) in mind we should keep a close watch on the wellbeing of our people and the kind of culture we are either consciously or tacitly encouraging.

We recently hosted a roundtable to discuss workplace wellbeing with experts including Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Dame Carol Black and Norman Lamb MP. The key messages that came out loud and clear were around the causes of good and poor wellbeing and the difficulties of measuring it.

Top-level leadership, workforce empowerment, skilled line managers and good quality of work all came out as underpinning causes of good wellbeing. Yet, the question remains of how to encourage these conditions. In other aspects of occupational health, we have seen the value of a regulator to assign responsibilities and enforce compliance.

There is a saying that regulators use and many of you will recognise: ‘if a dutyholder doesn’t see the light, they will feel the heat.’ But for any dutyholder to ‘see the light’ they need to know what is expected of them. And to know what’s expected we need to talk about measuring wellbeing – both what it is and how it is achieved.

Quantification could reveal hidden connections between management, culture and health, and throw new light into the health risks of a poorly run business

Measurement generally starts and ends with quantification. Numbers by any other name. It was St Augustine who said that “numbers are the universal language given to us by the deity as confirmation of the truth.” If numbers can bring us closer to the mystery of faith then perhaps there is a role for quantification in helping us achieve wellbeing at work? Modern technologies would seem to hold the key.

With the use of personal monitoring we can observe, like never before, the state of our physical and mental health in real time. This data can be combined with both safety and health data and management data, such as the extent of line managers with people skills, staff engagement, empowerment or the quality of leadership.

At the level of a workforce, such data can show patterns and give employers insights not only into the wellbeing of staff but also into what is causing it to increase or decrease, at least partially. Of course, in most cases this is theory and does raise questions about  intrusion into the lives of people – if we want to really address the wellbeing of people while they are at work, then we would need as much information as possible about life outside of work. If someone is suffering a bereavement or having money problems, then it’s unlikely their wellbeing would be great, no matter how empowered they are at work!

Nonetheless, such quantification could reveal hidden connections between management, culture and health that would throw new light into the health risks of a poorly run business. As we measure more the impact of poor leadership on the wellbeing of staff, as it becomes more ‘foreseeable’, is there a good reason why the regulator can’t get more involved in encouraging – even forcing – organisations to be better at running their business?

Surely it is for the competitive market to weed out poor performers? Perhaps. Yet, if it takes years for a business to get its act together, are we supposed to accept the damage that is done to the health of staff in the meantime? And, as we report in these pages, with fines increasing for health and safety offences, will there be a day when undermining staff wellbeing is given equal consideration?

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council



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