Build back better: workplace wellbeing
by Jonathan Phelan, Evenhood ©2021
As we (hopefully) start to see some positive progress in managing the nation’s health out of the pandemic, workplaces are increasingly pressing the accelerator pedal on workplace wellbeing initiatives. This is a good thing and to be applauded.
We see a myriad of reports that workers are concerned about a return to the workplace. Moreover this is giving rise to an increase in reports of workers feeling the impact on their mental wellbeing. We read of issues around work-related stress, anxiety and so on being on the measurable increase. This is on top of the direct mental health consequences from the pandemic.
Employers now have a big opportunity to move the dial significantly on workplace wellbeing. So let me give you some food for thought on how we can build back better when it comes to workplace wellbeing.
In my opinion, serious and complex problems need simple solutions.
Workplace wellbeing is an enormously complex problem. Mental health conditions are many and various - a whole soup of medical acronyms and labels. All of these conditions have a spectrum. Employers rightly conclude that they cannot train their managers on this medical complexity. The “better” approach is to help managers recognise the signs and symptoms and then refer on to external support.
I reluctantly applaud this. The applause is because it is positive. It’s an initiative, if not a strategy. My reluctance is that this only serves to push the issue outside the organisation. It hands-off the manager conversation to a third party medical specialist. Far from embedding a positive wellbeing culture, it shores up the sense that wellbeing is something that must be dealt with outside the office.
Pushing solutions to external assistance means that employees are given access to a series of therapeutic sessions and medical interventions that, cumulatively, rarely amount to more than 6-12 hours in total spread over 6-12 months. While this may help the condition enormously; it often does little to directly support workplace relationships.
This positive strategy of recognise and refer has its limitations. Workers need support in the workplace. They need conversations with managers. But, on the other hand, managers cannot be trained on all these complex conditions. How do we resolve this contradiction. How do we solve this complexity?
The answer I arrived at, some years ago now, is one that I share with workplaces, universities and schools.
The answer is that managers and workers need to have a different kind of conversation.
To me a mentally healthy conversation is one which necessarily has to bypass the medical and scientific complexity of the condition and rightly leave that to medical experts. Instead it needs to focus on the working environment. This shifts the conversation from the medically complex and instead makes the conversation managerial.
Let’s give this a practical example from my own journey. I now have two possible choices for my conversation.
Option One: I can either tell my manager that I have post traumatic stress disorder; and that, when this is particularly acute, I suffer from a sometimes deep depression. I can tell my manager that this arose after my wife and I suffered the brutal tragedy of a stillbirth, prolonged through the experience of the delivery, a post-mortem and funeral. And I can try and explain to my manager about flashbacks and how they affect me even now. And I can try and explain what it’s like to experience a hyper-vigilant mind which has been trained from that one awful experience to be on the lookout, every day, for new tragedies that could come my way.
The outcome might (at best) be support, understanding and referral to external medical assistance. I may have some really good access to cognitive behavioural therapy, medical support and medication. A good manager might show sympathy but may also have a frustrated sense of responsibility that they are unable to help directly beyond this. At worst, and with the wrong manager, it may result in a breakdown of the relationship and the sense that I am weak and incapable, rather than ill.
Or . . .
Option Two: Instead, I could say that I need to talk to my manager about the sort of things that might happen in the workplace environment that lead to my condition being worse. More importantly, I can let my manager know what sort of things happen in the workplace environment that lead to my condition being more manageable.
My manager will then know, from this conversation, that having autonomy helps enormously - the ability to arrange my own day and deal with work-issues one-by-one is far better for calming my hyper vigilant mind than a diary which is filled with and subject to chaos and interruptions. My manager will know that my condition will be more manageable if I can arrange my day so that I can work around a long-commute and stay at home with my family rather than have to stay away overnight for work. My manager will know that the frequency and quality of feedback also has a supportive impact on my wellbeing.
You can extend this to any employee and any condition. Instead of conversations about complex and emotional medical conditions you have a series of conversations in which managers simply ask:
“What is it about the workplace that leads to your wellbeing challenges being more difficult to manage?”
and . . .
“What is it about the workplace that leads to you being able to manage your wellbeing better?”
culminating in . . .
“What can I do to help create a positive environment that supports your wellbeing?”
That, to me, is a beautifully simple solution to a complex problem.
The answers I have got from working as a wellbeing coach to similarly burdened individuals demonstrates the range of things that managers can do to help create a workplace environment that supports positive wellbeing for individuals. Simple things help: like lighting, noise, when to take breaks and how long for, delivery of feedback, delivery of instructions, team interactions, type of work on offer, hours, elements of workplace flexibility, handling team competitiveness, finding different ways of tackling certain (challenging) tasks and so on. A long list of small interventions that make a big difference. And all of this for complex conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, bi-polar and so on.
I have absolutely no medical qualifications to help any of these clients from a medical perspective. What I do as their coach is help them find their comfortable; to find the working and home environment that helps them feel comfortable so that they can perform and be effective as individuals.
And this works. I’ve seen individuals gain a great deal of positive impact from this sort of environmental conversation.
It doesn’t take much imagination to know that training managers to ask those sort of questions is not complex. Giving them the permission to create a working environment that suits the needs of individuals is also not complex.
Moreover, it demonstrates humanity, compassion and understanding. It demonstrates that individuals can be themselves in the workplace and they will be valued for who they are.
That sort of humanity travels around an organisation. It creates a culture of mutual support for wellbeing.
This culture of mutual support for wellbeing is the nirvana you can aim for in your organisation.
So. There you go. Some food for thought on how to provide a mentally healthy workplace simply by training your people managers to have mentally healthy conversations.
It turns out that mentally healthy conversations are more of an art, than a science.