I've just been reading some blurb from a corporate wellbeing consultancy founded by a group of ex company executives and some doctors, including a psychiatrist. The CVs are extremely impressive and their backstory is compelling too.
Yet as I read the blurb, I can't help but start to yawn. It's full of short sharp statements about the 1 in 4 of the population who will suffer from mental health problems in their lives, the countless number of work hours lost through stress, ill-health and postural issues like back pain. It goes on to say how bad health reduces productivity and that a happy, healthy work force is the way to go for productivity. Of course, then comes the call-to-action that tells us that they can engage and train your employees to take better care of themselves.
As I'm reading this I find myself quite bemused.
I'm not surprised that health and wellbeing are such hot topics right now and from a human perspective I think it's one of the most important in business today.
What surprises me is that apart from the advent of mindfulness, breathing techniques, and the popularity of Yoga, nothing appears to have moved on much in this space since I was involved in designing my first training programme on the subject in the mid 1990s, back when I was working as a counsellor. There's very little, if any disruption in this space of corporate wellbeing to speak of. And by this I'm not talking tech, I'm talking fundamentally different ways of approaching the issues from a human perspective.
As I contemplated the message reflected in the blurb together with other literature and my experience, I wanted to consider how it lands with me. It made me sense a soft wrench in my gut together with a tightening of my breath. I wondered why..
Here are my thoughts and some observations I make in the work I do with groups and individuals.
What does wellbeing mean?
This may sound simple, but it is far from it. It seems to mean anything from an absence of illness or disease all the way to happiness, fulfilment and even bliss, all of which are pretty poorly defined and understood too!
I think wellbeing can actually mean many different things depending on the context, but it's primarily meaningful as an experience, because it's not a thing, it's not a particular sense or emotion. It's a state, or way of being.
Wellbeing may thus mean different things to different people but I wonder where the mutual, collaborative approaches in these workplace programmes are that might support people exploring together a shared meaning?
Where's the leadership and senior management?
I work with senior leaders and management, as well as with entrepreneurs. I know how well, or not, they may deal with their wellbeing. I see stress; burnout; poor self-care; too little sleep; too many working hours; excessive consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs; too little recreation and recovery time; and then there are the more hidden mental health issues. Senior management and leadership are as human as everyone else, yet in our culture of business, they either don't feel that they can show this, or they're not allowed to. And, of course, sometimes someone just doesn't want to go there for personal reasons.
There are also a whole host of senior people in organisations that demonstrate a poor, sometimes nonexistent understanding of wellbeing. Yet I've also seen many change tack and transform themselves in remarkable ways.
So when the wellbeing advisor says that senior leadership and management, especially the board, need to be onboard and you need to get their buy-in, I think they're misguided.
It isn't about leadership being engaged so lots of programmes and support mechanisms are provided. It's about leadership that can provide authentic demonstration, but then that typically means change at the very top. That's hard to do and requires significant dedication on the part of those at the top. Are they actually ready and willing for that?
Lead from the top?
Programmess are typically lead by HR and supported by the board. There will be a process of defining a wellbeing strategy, a set of goals and some measurement criteria..
I don't know how many people notice the incongruity here?
This is 'done-to.' The language clearly implies that it's the employees who need to learn and change what they're doing. Whilst it may be optional, it's still imposed.
How about flipping this over, perhaps to go out there and talk, in a mutual and co-operative way, with those who work in the organisation at every level to find out what they want and perhaps need? It could also prove useful to discuss everyone's levels of understanding and thoughts about their own wellbeing.
Now, I know how challenging this might seem. I've heard it many times where experts have told me that people don't know what they know, want, or need; or that there just isn't the time. Well, this is just tosh; it's patronising and it's lazy.
The Working Environment
The typical wellbeing program provides some standard things. This includes some kind of Employee Assistance (EAP), maybe fitness support such as gym facilities or gym membership benefits, some kind of psychological stuff like maybe some mindfulness lessons, meditation app, Yoga or Tai Chi classes, or the likes. There will be some education and probably some kind of online support platform that might even track activity. In some more developed programmes there could be a whole host of other options. Fresh fruit is a good one too.
All of these things push the responsibility and accountability onto the individual employee. They also add more to the individual burden because rarely does a wellbeing program take demands away from the employee or change the nature of their work.
The disruptive approach here, which is the elephant in the room, would be to start with a radical rethink of the working environment; to fundamentally re-organise the way in which people and their organisations work in ways that inherently support the wellbeing of everyone working in the company. This is a collaborative approach that shares the responsibility and accountability within the fold of the organisation, the environment it creates with its people, and out into the wider business environment.
The business case and strategy
Any board, or board member, who does not realise that wellbeing is beneficial not only to them individually but everyone working within the organisation needs to get real and have a rethink.
Wellbeing starts and ends with relationships and if you're basing a wellbeing program on a business case and constructing it as a strategy, you've already tripped up on the quality of the relationships with your employees. Relationships are more than a two way thing, they also extend to the wider business environment.
The 'employee' experience
Here is an illustration from recent experience with a senior person who works in a well known global company.
This executive, lets call him John, has been working in this company for many years, climbing up the career ladder through dedicated hard work and consistent results. He's moved into a new division and is put in charge of an important project. He's now also has a new boss. This new boss has a bit of a reputation as a bully who tends to undermine and humiliate people who work for him if they're not part of his inner group of favoured reports (it's been observed that these are people who don't question or challenge him).
John has met his new boss before but it's not until now that he starts to undermine and try to humiliate John in project meetings. As there are some differences in opinion, John feels his boss has started to try and bully him into towing the line to the detriment of the project (John has significantly more experience and a better track record with projects requiring this specialism than his boss). People are aware of how this is playing out, as is leadership and management in the wider organisation, but there is no intervention and John remains under pressure to deliver. He starts to feel unsupported and his stress levels rise as what he is being told to do is jeopardising aspects of the project. His experience now also brings up some personal history which exacerbates the situation for him, reducing his ability to deal with the situation.
After a few months John is so unwell that he goes to his doctor who signs him off for stress and prescribes him some anti-anxiety medication. He's then referred to occupational health who support this, provide his employer with a report and he's referred for some time-limited counselling throughout the EAP.
John clearly doesn't want to be in this place. He's also aware that it's not all down to him, but he feels that the pressure is on him and this is reflected in the way support is being provided through his company wellbeing program.
He doesn't want counselling because it focusses on his past rather than helping him in the now, nor does he feel the counselling he's received has been particularly insightful or helpful, mostly because the counsellor doesn't have requisite experience to understand his business and professional context. His company only provide internal coaches at his level who are focussed on performance. External coaches are only available to more senior members of the executive team. So John is left to his own devises. John thinks that what he needs most is some personal and professional development to deal more effectively with the situations within which he's now finding himself.
So for years John performed really well and he took care of himself yet when it went somewhat wrong there was no reflection by the organisation about its role in the situation. Despite leadership knowing about his boss's ways, it only made referrals to fix the employee. Unfortunately John had no avenue to provide safe and confidential feedback about his experience, nor did the program allow for any input from him. There was also no flexibility in what was made available to John.
John's overall experience in this was poor and he's not alone in this. It reflects wastefulness and inefficiency too. Yet the elephant in the room is his company, its leadership and culture.
Until such time as corporate wellbeing programs and their leaders are brave enough to tackle their leadership, working culture and environment, as well as take onboard individual needs and experiences of people, they're inevitably going to be just tinkering round the edges.
And one has to wonder who the programs are actually set up to benefit?