Wellbeing

It’s wellbeing not welldoing

Wellbeing is doing well. It can mean many things and, to be honest, it can often be a wrapper for something someone is trying to sell you. No doubt some of these interventions are helpful, but be sure you are buying them because you need them, rather than riding the bandwagon.

For the purpose of this article, I need to distinguish wellbeing from clinical mental health. I am sure the two are connected but I am not a mental health specialist and I don’t want to verge into this territory.

The dictionary says wellbeing is the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy. As hinted at by the word “comfortable”, the happiness is usually taken as sustained contentment rather than isolated peaks of euphoria. You probably don’t want to whip your staff into a permanent ecstatic frenzy as part of your people strategy; although I guess there are some business models that depend on it.

The relationship between physical and psychological wellbeing is well attested but, again as a non-specialist, I will do no more than agree that, if possible, staying active, getting enough sleep and eating well are often good strategies.

At an organisational level, then, wellbeing is achieved when the people who work for you can be contented and happy. To be more precise, when you create conditions that tend to promote their happiness.

I don’t think we can take responsibility for colleagues’ actual happiness. There are events in their personal lives, forces in their environment and traits in their characters over which we have no control. There are times and occasions when someone should be unhappy or discontented. But the way we run our organisations should not regularly be making them less happy. (Again, there will inevitably be isolated decisions which displease them, and mistakes are inevitable.) At the higher end of ambition, we might even aspire to create the kind of place in which they can bounce back from external challenges when they are ready.

Contentment is unlikely to be the product of an isolated intervention like a course or a set of tips. It is hard to see how these can produce significant and sustainable impact. They may even make things worse – by intruding into the time available for work, irritating the recipients or fooling management into thinking they’ve done something meaningful.

Symbols of appreciation, like a thank you note or a team lunch, can certainly help – they contribute to a sense of meaningful achievement (see below) but are unlikely to counteract a sustained toxic culture.

I’d like to suggest six practices to ensure your organisation is not consistently making people less happy. They are basic, perhaps even banal, but they are not quick fixes:

  • Working hours
  • Focus
  • Purpose
  • Control
  • Acceptance
  • Fairness

Working hours

Don’t make people permanently work excessively long hours or regularly intrude into their home or family lives.

Obviously there are short term emergencies and even spans of time where people enjoy intense focus on a project, but these should not be a permanent feature of working life. The ability to switch off from work and to fulfil one’s other responsibilities is a huge factor in wellbeing. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you can probably best help people by getting out of their lives! At least for some of the time.

If you regularly demand very long hours while sending people on aromatherapy courses, you are part of the problem.

You can balance occasional long hours by being more flexible when people need time for non-work responsibilities or emergencies, so flexible working polices can help. You should also make sure you are paying a living wage: otherwise you will find people taking second jobs or overtime to make ends meet. As a general principle, worrying that you can’t meet your external responsibilities because of work makes people unhappy.

Speaking personally, I find limiting workload to be one of the hardest tasks as a manager and something I fall short on. There are certainly times when we have had to ask more of our teams than we would ideally like to keep pace with the changing world. There is always something more that can be done: choosing priorities is painful, particularly when you are uncertain as to which options will pay off. Appropriate tactics here will depend on the nature of the work itself. One option is to consider time as a finite budget. You can’t spend money you don’t have (for long) but too often we treat time as an infinite pot.

Covid-19 has had an ambiguous impact on wellbeing in this sense. It has reduced commuting time for some roles, for example, but it has required long hours in others and blurred the boundaries between home and work, making it harder to switch off. Many parents have felt they weren’t able to easily balance their responsibilities to family and work.

The importance of switching off to sustain performance and good judgement is explored in the article Small but Very Close.

Focus

Help people concentrate on their main work, particularly work that produces results you hold them accountable for.

Don’t keep interrupting or disrupting them; don’t keep changing things or dropping unexpected demands; don’t bury them in admin and reporting. Good, long periods immersed in the things that we do best are a tonic. You should think carefully about the role that technology plays in this. In theory, technology could be used to help people prioritise the things they do best by removing the routine; in practice it is too often a source of constant distraction. There are times when you might want to make it harder rather than easier to communicate.

You should think about the role your management style plays too; take a look at this article on “undelegation” for more advice here, or the article Four by Four for ideas on minimising interruptions.

Purpose

People thrive when their work holds meaning, however hard or fraught that work may be.

You’ll have heard this before: Daniel Pink’s work on motivation in his book Drive, for example. The point I want to make here is that purpose is about more than the organisation’s mission. I see a lot of organisations with grand ideals and deeply unhappy employees.

Yes, the organisation itself must fulfil a need, other than to make money for the owner or increase power for the leader. People don’t mind that the owner makes money or leaders become influential, but they want that to be incidental. There should be some form of useful service to the outside world. It needn’t be particularly grand – supplying shower curtain rings to the bathrooms of the world is a useful service. In fact, too grand a purpose can be counter-productive – because it is hard to see how the actions of the organisation actually make a real difference. Solving world peace is all well and good – how have you really advanced that cause today? There’s an art to the right level of purpose. One particular problem occurs when high ideals excuse treating individuals like dirt – the ends justifying the means.

But by itself, the overall purpose can be surprisingly limp when it comes to individual wellbeing. Each person must also be able to draw a line of sight from their work to that purpose, to understand their personal contribution. It’s not enough to have a grand overall vision if the daily work is disconnected from it. This can be hard sometimes for support or policy roles – although sometimes the need they serve is simply that of their colleagues. This line of sight is achieved through constant communication, relating tasks, initiatives and requests back to that bigger picture. Never assume it is obvious.

Even if we can see in theory how our work connects to the mission, we also need, however temporary, a sense of completion or progress in the tasks we perform – that feeling that we actually achieved something today. This is why traditional production lines can be dispiriting. Finishing a car that can be driven away has meaning, finishing a widget that gets thrown in a storage bin less so. There is often a conflict between the efficiency that comes from increasing specialisation and the sense of achievement that is available from such work.

A sense of completion can be hard in knowledge work and caring professions: the work is never really done. But progress can be substituted for completion – looking back at what has been done rather than forward at what is still to do.

Control

Give people as much discretion as possible about how they do their work.

This can include flexible working patterns as discussed above, but also choice of methods. Micromanagement saps wellbeing. Of course, autonomy can be taken too far – you need some common standards and routines, they can free people up for the true creative work. Autonomy should also be proportionate to skill and experience: novices will benefit from more structure as they master each component.

The trick is to find those areas of each job where autonomy is needed and valuable. Train people to excel in these areas and then trust them. See Society of Angels for more discussion of this.

Acceptance

Nobody can truly thrive if constantly on guard, editing their disclosures, composing their behaviour and hiding important parts of themselves.

Yes, most of us put on a professional demeanour and alter our behaviour between work and home, but that isn’t the same as hiding or deprecating important parts of our identity. The sheer cost in mental energy alone is staggering. Diversity and inclusion are pivotal to wellbeing. This needs to be more than just ‘tolerance’ and move into open acceptance and valuing of differences.

Fairness

Fear is obviously corrosive to wellbeing. Less obvious is that fear is not normally a product of healthy or well-balanced accountability.

Fear occurs when you face severe consequences for events that are outside your control, when chance or whim (or even prejudice) are the deciding factors. Add to this the prospect of public humiliation, and you have the perfect recipe for unhappiness

It is a prerequisite of effective accountability that you use transparent, predictable and achievable criteria related to outcomes within a person’s control; that the early consequences are support and assistance, and that any more severe outcomes are handled with discretion and humanity. You should be aware that accountability casts a long shadow. If your system is punitive, random or cruel to anyone, even high performers will feel that sense of fear. There is a high cost in innovation and creativity, as well as happiness, from such fear.

There is no doubt that workplace bullying is a major cause of unhappiness. Depending on its targets and methods, bullying could be seen either as a lack of acceptance or as unjust consequences. Either way, it should be eradicated.

Note, this does not imply a lack of accountability, merely the need for just accountability. A lack of accountability can be dispiriting too: a sense that your choices and actions count is exciting. That’s the problem with toxic accountability: it is not actually your choices and efforts that are being measured. The right balance of accountability, authority and ability is explored in the article The Triple A.


Beyond this, happiness at work will depend on individual circumstances and events, and may require specific interventions. But if you can ensure that people normally work sensible hours with a protected home life, are able to focus on their main work without too much distraction, feel they are contributing to something important, feel trusted to make decisions, can be their true selves, and are held fairly and proportionately accountable for things in their control – you will have gone a long way to setting the conditions for people to thrive.

Although I’ve written this about adult wellbeing, I also wonder if some of this can apply to pupil wellbeing too. The control dimension is the hardest one to see how it applies to the same degree, possibly because pupils are novices in so many areas. If applicable, these dimensions would suggest a strong connection between behaviour policies and wellbeing, especially to the extent they promote focus and predictable consequences, while preventing bullying. Schools may want to carefully consider the volume of homework set too. Of course, there may be safeguarding concerns that apply to pupils that are not common when considering adult wellbeing.


Update: interesting debate on LinkedIn around the role of social connection as an additional factor in wellbeing. Likely that isolation and lockdowns during Covid-19 will cast some perspective on this.

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