Despite decades of increased investment and maturing understanding employee wellbeing is in decline. Tackling workplace wellbeing paradoxes – Part 1

coworkers having a break

Throughout August, I will deep dive into one of the many workplace wellbeing paradoxes each week, helping you to better understand it and set about tackling it.

Workplace wellbeing paradox number 1:

Despite decades of increased investment and maturing understanding the wellbeing of the working population is in decline.

It turns out the pandemic was not solely to blame for this, rather, this was a trend that had been spiralling downwards for many years.

Upon discovering this paradox, I hypothesised that either our approaches to tackling the wellbeing challenge weren’t working, or the challenges creating stressors in business were simply increasing faster than our wellbeing efforts could mitigate them. Turns out, both are at play. D’oh!

A recent study by the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre titled Estimating effects of individual-level workplace mental wellbeing interventions concluded:

“𝘐 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘥 𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘴𝘶𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘳𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘣𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴. 𝘈𝘥𝘥𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺, 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘮, 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘮 𝘧𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘤𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘴…𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘰𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘵-𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘮 ‘𝘰𝘧𝘧-𝘵𝘩𝘦-𝘴𝘩𝘦𝘭𝘧’ 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘳 𝘤𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘴𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮𝘪𝘤 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘣𝘭𝘦𝘮𝘴 𝘪𝘯 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬-𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘶𝘤𝘦𝘥 𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘴, 𝘣𝘰𝘵𝘩 𝘰𝘧 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘧𝘺𝘪𝘯𝘨.”

Turns out that multiple studies over the past 10-years have concluded similar findings when investigating a wide-range of interventions. However, the message just wasn’t getting through to business. Instead, we were blindly following the latest trends of an ever-increasing number of new wellbeing solutions in a game of keeping up with the Jones’.

The result is that our well-meaning and often heroic efforts, alongside our increased spending targeted at stemming the flow of declining wellbeing has, in many cases, been making the situation worse. Ouch!

What’s causing this paradox?

The main reason for this paradox is that we are failing to address the causes of declining wellbeing at the organizational level, in favour of implementing solutions designed to encourage employees to take better care of themselves. i.e., we’ve simply been papering over the cracks, instead of fixing the underlying cultural and structural issues destabilizing our organizations. Those cracks have now become gaping chasms placing unprecedented pressure on our businesses. Yet many are still not connecting these dots, and still not understanding the role wellbeing plays in our success stories as individuals or collectives.

The second reason is that employees understand that no amount of ‘yoghurt or yoga’ will lessen the stressors created by an unmanageable workload, ineffective management, or an always on culture. So, often the intervention style approach to workplace wellbeing feels horribly disingenuous. Employees wonder why they should be working hard to change their bad habits, when the organization isn’t interested in doing the same. This breaks down trust (essential to workplace wellbeing) because it feels like the organization is trying to dupe the employees into believing they care. In many cases they DO care, and their intentions are good, but caring simply isn’t enough as we have learnt the hard way.

  1. Medical insurance premiums and loss ratios don’t fall because we start doing lunch and learns.
  2. Employees don’t stop feeling the stress of 8pm emails because we gave them an app to count their steps.
  3. The damage caused by rewarding toxic rockstars isn’t mitigated by an in-office chair massage or a sleep pod.


We are in a lose-lose situation of our own making

Employers are wasting resources and failing to yield valuable returns or impact from their wellbeing investments. Wellbeing has been side-lined; a tangential programme or project that sits separately from the core mission of the organization. As a result, it has become a part of the very problems it has the potential to address.

There is absolutely a place for webinars, EAPs, apps, wellbeing events, smoking cessation programmes etc, but on their own they cannot possibly counter the impact of poorly designed work, and therefore will never deliver on their promises of tackling retention, productivity, or engagement issues. Especially when such a small number of employees utilise them.

All this tears at the fabric of the unspoken employee-employer agreement; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

As leaders, we must understand that at its core, workplace wellbeing is not about health (mental or physical), sure this is a small part of it, but the real stuff lies in workplace relationships, security, and autonomy.

What’s the solution?

We must embed a culture of wellbeing which is optimized by the social proximity effect. Behaviours are catching and we are far more likely to succeed in achieving our goals if we are supported by those around us, and belong to a group that shares our values and ambitions. Thriving is a team sport not an individual one.

This cultural approach is about uplifting the wellbeing of the entire workplace community, whether they actively engage or not. Put simply, it puts the control back in the hands of the organization.

The most mature approaches to workplace wellbeing, and the ones delivering the headline grabbing outcomes, are the ones diagnosing the root causes of languishing wellbeing and tackling counter-wellbeing factors at the organizational level; systems, cultures, structures, and behaviours.

That’s why the WellWise diagnostics platform and strategy development service is designed to empower forward-thinking organizations to do just that.

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