How to create a best-in-class wellbeing offering
by Jonathan Phelan, Evenhood ©2021
Organisations that aspire to be an ‘employer of choice’ need to offer best-in-class support for employee wellbeing. Let’s explore what this looks like.
“There are three types of workplace when it comes to wellbeing. Most employers that aspire to support employee wellbeing reach Type Two. Explore what it takes to be a Type Three organisation, offering best-in-class wellbeing support.”
Wellbeing is a challenging topic. It involves the complexity of the human condition and relates to an incredibly broad range of things that affect personal wellbeing: daily stress, workloads, working hours, separation between work life and home life, more recently the impact of the pandemic and anxieties about working patterns, a return to commuting and a return to office life and so on. It can also involve the impact on an individual from a wide range of mental health conditions. Each condition is complex. The impact of mental health conditions differs for each individual, across a wide spectrum. The subject of mental wellbeing is often emotional and difficult to discuss.
Employers are therefore rightly cautious about dabbling in the complexities of the way the mind works. This caution means that initiatives around mental wellbeing in the workplace tend to focus on offering in-house training so that people are able to “recognise” the signs and symptoms of poor mental health. Then they can “signpost” to external specialist medical or therapeutic support.
To meet the objectives of this “recognise-and-signpost” strategy, most organisations that aspire to promote positive mental wellbeing in the workplace have many of the following characteristics in their offering:
Private medical insurance with a good level of coverage for mental health treatment
Employee assistance programmes which offer external therapy or counselling
Sometimes, in-house therapists or counsellors
Manager training to ensure managers know how to identify staff who have mental health challenges and initiate conversations with them
Mental health first aiders - trained to recognise the signs & symptoms of staff with mental health challenges, to offer in-the-moment support and to refer staff on for specialist support
Occupational health schemes to recommend reasonable adjustments
Awareness raising initiatives designed to reduce stigma and improve the willingness of staff to talk openly about wellbeing
Supportive HR processes to enable staff to disclose wellbeing challenges and ask for adjustments
Supportive HR passporting processes to ensure that staff don’t have to disclose every time they move or when they get a new manager
Employers that ensure they have these “recognise-and-signpost” initiatives on offer represent a Type Two organisation. And this is good because the more features that an employer has from this list of initiatives, the further it moves away from being a Type One organisation which is stuck in stigma and lack of support.
“Let’s remember that Type One organisations are abundant. A wide range of surveys show that many employees feel the brutality of stigma and lack of support.”
So, what’s wrong with a Type Two organisation and what is Type Three all about?
A Type Three organisation is one which recognises that workplace wellbeing isn’t just about offering support for the way the mind works. Thinking of mental health in that way is limiting. When we think about mental health as being "just" about the complexities of the way the mind works we are naturally cautious. We therefore come up with a set of solutions that are medicalised.
Let’s take a look at what this looks like in practice.
Imagine living with a mental health challenge. You live with the challenge every single day. Sometimes things might be good. Sometimes, perhaps quite often, things are particularly challenging. In a Type Two organisation you have the benefit of meetings with occupational health, counsellors, therapists, GPs, specialists and so on. You might have a manager who spots that there could be an issue and s/he has the care and compassion to help you engage with this support. This might amount to a session with occupational health, perhaps one or two with a GP or specialist and a series of perhaps six sessions with a therapist.
“So, in a Type Two organisation, over a six month period you might have 10 hours or so of support. What about the support you need for the other 800 hours you spend working over that period of time?”
A “recognise-and-signpost” approach therefore has its limitations. Line managers know this. The near unanimous cry of line managers who care, is that they feel a “frustrated sense of responsibility”. They want to help. But don’t know how to, even when they’re trained to “recognise-and-signpost”.
“Employees need day to day support in the workplace so that they can perform and be effective at work (which is what they truly want because this, in itself, is supportive of positive wellbeing).”
So, what does a Type Three organisation offer?
Let’s take a different starting proposition to the one that says mental health is all about the complexities of the way the mind works.
“Let’s instead have a starting proposition that mental health is not just about the mind, it’s about your environment too.”
With that small change in emphasis you've just gained the opportunity to instantly turn all your people managers into mental health experts who can provide support by offering their people a working environment that they find comfortable. That's because your managers are experts in being able to create a comfortable working environment for their people.
Take the example of a few progressive supermarkets to get a sense of how an environmental approach to wellbeing can be a powerful compliment to a medical approach to wellbeing. Have you ever walked into a supermarket and wondered why the lights are dimmed, there's no background music or noise, even the volume on the tills is turned down low? If so, you've walked into a supermarket that is catering for autistic customers. These organisations aren't offering a medical cure for the autistic mind. They're offering a comfortable environment to enable their customers to carry out their shopping.
“Type Three organisations enable their people to be themselves by giving them a working environment that they feel comfortable in. This brings the wellbeing conversation into the workplace by focusing on the things that managers ARE able to help with. And the one thing that they have significant control over is the working environment.”
Someone with a mental health challenge can do well when the organisation makes the effort to create an environment that suits the individual and supports their mental wellbeing.
If you were my manager in a Type Three organisation, you don’t need to talk to me about the way my mind works, what my condition is and so on. Instead you’re trained to talk to me about the sort of things that happen in the workplace that make it harder for me to manage my wellbeing. You can help me avoid these things or develop strategies to work around them. Then you talk to me about the sort of things in the workplace that make it easier for me to manage my wellbeing. You can help me have more of these things.
Just imagine how you'd feel if you were my manager and I told you about having post-traumatic stress and depression following a tragic child bereavement. You'd most likely have that sense of frustrated responsibility - that you want to support me, but aren't quite sure how to.
Now imagine how you'd feel if I shared this wellbeing card with you to let you know how you could support me by helping me have a comfortable working environment.
Approaching wellbeing from a situational or environmental perspective opens up a world of new opportunities. Individuals are empowered to reflect on their environment and identify the situations that have the biggest impact on their wellbeing. They can then make guided choices about how to better manage their wellbeing and strengthen their resilience.
"As this support is directly focused on them as an individual, in their daily environment, they are able to be themselves. They feel valued for who they are and they don’t need to spend energy (and damage wellbeing) making an effort to ‘fit in’ to workplace norms.”
Equally, managers feel empowered to offer support without feeling a sense of frustrated responsibility.
“Instead, managers feel a sense of fulfilled responsibility. They feel empowered to help because they can directly influence the workplace and offer tailored solutions to support wellbeing for their people. They can see the results and they get a happier, more productive team.”
By shifting the conversation from the mind to the environment, organisations can provide direct, in-the-line support and create a culture and a mindset that enables a positive approach to mental wellbeing.
So, if you aspire to be an employer of choice; you need to elevate yourself to being a Type Three organisation and encourage your managers to focus the conversation on the workplace environment.
Get in touch on email@example.com if you’d like explore what it takes to be a Type Three organisation.