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Three ways employers get well-being at work wrong

Well-being is seen as increasingly important in the workplace. A growing number of companies have well-being 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 well-being “are now bottom-line issues – not the ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’”.

Clearly, the bottom line is important. But well-being policies designed to improve the performance of an organisation may not always, on their own, be compatible with the well-being of staff. New research into the experience of staff in a large secondary school shows how there are at least two kinds of well-being 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 well-being, 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 well-being, which can undermine emotional well-being in three important ways.

1. Making it all about productivity

Well-being 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 well-being 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’ well-being. After all, why shouldn’t employers get something back for making efforts to improve well-being?

Policies need to allow for creativity and autonomy.

The problem arises when employees feel like they are commodities you are trying to make the most of. Promoting well-being 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 well-being.

There is nothing to say of course that emotional and rational well-being should not work in tandem, but this requires an overall culture of caring for employees’ well-being, 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 well-being – 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

Well-being policies can be too focussed at the individual level. They do not always address organisational, cultural or group issues. At their worst, well-being 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 well-being issues were tackled at an organisational rather than purely individual level. Rather than catering for well-being 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 well-being policies for best practice.

So, if well-being policies remain motivated only by business ends and fail to engage with the emotions of employees, they fail to improve people’s all round well-being 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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