Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

Published
07 Apr 2017

We cant afford not to take wellbeing seriously

07 Apr 2017 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

How can leaders embed the concept of wellbeing throughout their organisations?

First, leaders need to understand the importance of creating a wellbeing culture, and second, understand that not all leaders from shop floor to top floor have interpersonal skills – this is part of the problem with productivity.

Many organisations in both the private and public sector have had to downsize due to the recession (anywhere from 20-40%). Therefore, there are fewer workers who are now doing more work, and being bottom-line managed. As a consequence of that we have a growing sickness absence problem in what are referred to as the ‘common mental health disorders’, these being stress, anxiety and depression. These are now the leading cause of sickness absence to the UK economy – costing £26 billion per annum, and that’s a direct cost to employers. 

The UK’s productivity per capita is very poor. This is because we don’t have the right culture in place and we don’t have the right line managers. Our productivity per capita is seventh in the G7. Leadership needs to focus on getting the costs down and focus on how to make your people more productive. The line manager is critical when it comes to this. If the managers can’t communicate properly with their people it simply won’t work, therefore we need more socially skilled line managers. 

Technology is another issue; email is having a counter-productive effect. People are overloaded, and it’s interfering with work-life balance. As a leader, if you have control over technology and flexible working, you will have higher productivity per capita. It’s not low because we don’t have the right resources; we are one of the leading countries in consumer technologies in the world. The government argues we don’t have the right equipment – that’s not it; it’s that we have a culture where people don’t want to contribute or can’t contribute. There are enough returns on this to prove it’s needed going forward.

How important is it to personalise wellbeing agendas?

Extremely important. We’ve realised we need senior people to stand up and talk about their own mental health, throughout their career. We want senior people to admit they have had problems, and companies to discuss the great people they’ve lost due to burn out. We need to retain talent. There are too few people in the workplace at the moment, doing everything and burning out; or they are leaving companies because they don’t enjoy their job. 

Why is wellbeing devalued in the UK if improving it would boost productivity?

I think some senior people see it as a ‘nice to have’. However the evidence says it is a business issue. A lot of C-Suite members believe productivity is about getting the best IT systems. The point is to look at the definition of productivity, considering the output of each individual over an hour, day or a week. Our technology is not the answer here, it’s our people. You frequently hear CEOs say their most valuable resource is their human resource, but they don’t action it. Translating this into policies, into practices and into cultures is a different story entirely. 

When will leaders start to take this wellbeing agenda seriously?

We can demonstrate the ROI – we can show them it’s a business case but another way to do it is through narratives; people telling stories about themselves or colleagues who were going through issues and didn’t receive the right support. These stories can be powerful.

Youve recently launched a wellbeing forum; what is its aim?

To influence government and business corporate policy by giving practical suggestions on how they can improve to enhance productivity.

Workplace wellbeing forum

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, and Dr Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer at BT, have launched a wellbeing forum to discuss a wide range of topics surrounding workplace wellbeing every quarter. Companies already involved in the forum are Shell, BT, Rolls-Royce, NHS England, BP, Marks & Spencer, Barclays, John Lewis Partnership, GSK, and the UK Government.