A discerning eye

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A discerning eye


Your business is unique. Tailoring your wellbeing approach to your workforce works best for wellbeing and performance. Yet it can also raise concerns, especially when starting out. Without a cookie cutter set of activities to follow, you may ask yourself ‘are we doing the right thing?’


Luckily, although every business is unique, the principles that underpin good workplace wellbeing are surprisingly common across all different sizes and types of organisations. Checking yourself against the principles can help keep you on track.

Five evidence-based principles are offered below to help you assess how far your organisation has travelled on the workplace wellbeing journey.



Who gets to take part in the conversation in your company about issues relating to performance and wellbeing?

Jot down the informal and formal ways dialogue currently takes place in your organisation on these topics. Is everyone involved or just certain decision-makers? Take a moment to note anything that is not currently up for discussion and consider why that may be.

What we mean by dialogue – When conversation flows and listening happens between all             colleagues in an organisation, rather than one set of people telling others what to do.

Why ask this? – Dialogue is the bedrock of good working relationships. When we ask businesses about ‘communication’ it is common for them to know what they are doing to get their own messages out to employees about wellbeing but are often less clear on how they hear back from, and involve the workforce in, moving wellbeing forwards. Identifying how communication flows in your organisation and where it may currently be stuck can help you work out you next steps for improving wellbeing.

What does good practice look like?

  • Open door management culture
  • Fostering trust, over time, to ensure people feel safe to discuss issues
  • Effort to cultivate good working relationships across the organisation
  • Opportunities for employees to meaningfully communicate with managers and colleagues about their work experiences, career aspirations, professional but also personal needs and wishes. This can be done either informally through individual check-ins, or via one to ones, forums, committees, working groups, continuous improvement workshops (depending on the size and existing structures of the organisation)
  • Surveys, HR data, shop floor walks and other regular benchmarking exercises.

Practitioner examples

It’s important to set the tone for an open, interested and listening wellbeing culture (via role-modelling, prioritising feedback structures and empowering others to act on that feedback). Here is an employee giving their impression of a leader in a large construction company who is good at communication:

“So, when you’ve got somebody who perhaps works in the canteen who can walk up and have a conversation with the project director about something…. In and of itself you think ‘so what’. But what that says is that that person who perhaps would be considered to be in a relatively junior role … is comfortable to walk up to the most senior person on the project to say can I have two minutes of your time…  But not only are they going to be open to the conversation but they’re going to listen and perhaps respond in a positive way and support that person.”  

The small tech company sets the tone for open communication in a number of different ways – not just a tech-supported survey but also one-to-ones and review meetings – giving employees confidence that issues can be discussed:

“Yes, well I’m not sure if you’ve heard about there’s a tool called Office Survey.  So, we use that quite regularly, I think it’s like every two weeks, and what it does is there is like completely anonymous feedback.  It generates questions about the company well-being basically and it also covers benefits.  In this case [colleague name] is the one who uses it the most, she has access to the direct feedback. And one of the regular questions is, like you have regular conversation, do you think that the company cares about your well-being, benefits, is there something you think you don’t need. 

But I guess that also it’s being asked on the one to ones, or it will be asked in the annual review if there is something that is not working.  But again, the company’s quite open and vocal and I’m sure that if someone would like something particular there will a full discussion.  For example, what I mentioned about the training budget.  The training budget is £400 a year but I’ve been in a situation where I wanted to do a course that was £85 above my budget and the company said to go.  So, everything is under discussion.”


Supporting behaviour change – what to consider next?

Capacity – Are your leaders, HR / wellbeing practitioners and managers aware and skilled enough in communication skills to offer genuine listening and dialogue?

Motivation – Does the idea of more open communication make anyone within your organisation uncomfortable (either because of their confidence or what they worry about what they will find out?) Can you start to investigate the emotions, habits or goals that might prevent the development of an open culture, as a first step to tackling the challenge?

Opportunity – In what ways does your organisation prioritise time for listening and discussion even (and especially) during stressful or busy periods?



Have you ever checked that the different parts of your wellbeing approach work together?

Either jot down all the different things you are doing or reach for your existing wellbeing strategy / plan. Check if there any noticeable gaps. There are many ways to look at what influences wellbeing: consider physical, mental, financial wellbeing, career development, colleague interactions, management capability, involvement, meaning and job quality…

Why ask this? – Whether employees can thrive and perform is influenced by the whole ecosystem of work they are operating within. It is not just one activity that matters, but the whole package. So, it is important to have an overview of whether that package is coherent. Businesses with good intentions can sometimes end up with a scattergun of wellbeing initiatives (like healthy eating, walking groups etc.) without realising they are still only focussing mainly on one or two aspects of wellbeing (for example physical health and safety) and forget other important areas (e.g. is the person managed well, do they feel they can learn and progress, do they feel valued?) Checking for coherence can help you identify where your next steps on wellbeing could be.

What does good practice look like?

  • A rounded approach to wellbeing which takes in many different needs and goals
  • An understanding that being coherent does not mean having a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach or top-down control and implementation, it just means having a set of activities and practices that all pull in the same direction
  • Encouraging employees to share and try out ideas and activities on wellbeing, whilst also keeping an eye on fairness and coverage of different aspects of wellbeing.

From practice…

In a large pharmaceutical company the Occupational Health Lead believes that wellbeing is a much wider issue than the workplace health promotion. The focus should be spread through line management relationships and wider understanding of wellbeing, so that wellbeing is owned by the whole organisation:

“My focus is much more on about things like: ‘how do we influence the managers?’ Because at the end of the day ultimately how you get on at work is determined by your relationships.

… the thing that fundamentally affects your outlook on work and ultimately your productivity is how you get on with your manager. And so, the focus there has been to try to ensure that managers understand this, that there is sufficient training in place: that we are a much more flexible company, that some of the tensions that don’t need to be between home and work are removed. And I am pleased to say I think there has been a lot of progress there.

It’s a much more flexible work environment, it’s not set hours it’s not bums on seats, it’s not if you can’t see them you are not managing, it’s much more target orientated working from home, flexible, concentrated hours. And this was the sort of thing I was thinking I would say to you is that the bit that makes the fundamental difference is how people feel and how they are treated.  And that feeds into productivity.”

Supporting behaviour change – what to consider next?

Capacity – Do you know what a rounded wellbeing programme looks like (see ‘align to thrive’ ‘a pro-active approach’)? Does anyone within your organisation need additional training in order to look after the people function well?

Motivation – Does overall responsibility for reviewing your wellbeing coverage sit with someone with enough seniority and a wide enough role description for them to be interested in and take responsibility for coherent coverage? (If their title is health and safety, or staff development, they may not feel motivated to check other aspects of wellbeing are being covered – some of our collaborating organisations have made this change)

Opportunity – In what ways do you regularly review the coverage of your wellbeing programme, even (and especially) during stressful or busy periods?



Do you regularly ask: what would ‘better’ look like in your organisation?

What formal and informal opportunities have you made space for in the working life of your business for the development of new ideas and exploration of new opportunities? What barriers do you experience to asking ‘what if…?’ and making it happen? Is there anyone who would be reluctant / is reluctant when you make changes?

Why ask this? – Being able to imagine something is a step towards being able to create it. Sometimes we get stuck within unhelpful practices because we cannot imagine how things could be different. Linked to the drive to be ‘pro-active’ described in the second section, evidence suggests that being creative is also about feeling able to challenge the status quo. If there is bullying, overwork or unsafe practices, creatively challenging the current situation is vital for improving wellbeing. The principle of creativity seen in this way – as a vigorous practice of taking an honest look at workforce issues and trying to think of ways to address them – is a robust part of improving wellbeing, not just a ‘nice to have’.

What does good practice look like?

  • Nobody tells anybody else – ‘well that’s just the way it is’ – and makes them put up with unhealthy work practices because others have experienced them
  • People at all levels of the organisation can have their improvement requests and ideas heard and considered as to what could make things better
  • Recognising that change can be hard for some people, especially if the change affects their sense of identity or worth in the business. Taking an interest in any reasons for reluctance to change / improve helps with understanding and embedding new practices.

Practitioner story:

Some companies use a wellbeing calendar of some kind to drive their programme of wellbeing initiatives, tied into national wellbeing campaigns. In a small company that we have spoken to, the leaders of the company constantly seek new ideas from a wide variety of other sources:

“A lot of it does come from myself and COO, I think just because we have an interest in learning new things.  I think that’s what it comes down to.  So it can be from reading books, it can be from listening to podcasts.  [Our city] has a decent amount of actually talks nowadays from the business school and CMI and CIPD and stuff, so they go in quite a lot.  It’s also talking to other businesses around us when we’re at these events too and seeing what they’ve been bringing in as well.  So, some of the ideas come from that.

Some of the ideas as well actually just come from the employees. So the employee forum… that’s not to just give them that survey, so they’re not just writing down ‘yes I agree with this statement, I disagree with this’. We get them to fill that in for starters but then we have a forum with them.  So, we get them to go through those kind of questions and be like ok, well why did you score it like this.  Talk in small groups and have that communication between each other about why you scored this way.

A lot of ideas come out in those sessions because we ask them to gauge things for what they want us to stop doing, what they want us to keep doing, and what they want us to start doing.  So, the things that they want us to start doing, that builds a lot of ideas, and getting them to have that collaborative approach where they’re all invested in what we’re doing too because they’re the ones coming up with it as well.  That feeds what we do in the [Senior Leadership Team] a lot of the time as well.”


Supporting behaviour change – what to consider next?

Motivation –   Moving from ‘what now…?!!’ to ‘what if….?’ can be a difficult mindset for some because it involves taking preventative rather than reactive action. Who in your business might find this change hard? Is it because they are already struggling / finding things hard themselves and changing things feels like ‘more’ work rather than a way to improve things? Consider if you need to find small ways to help people be calmer and more receptive, through demonstrating small acts of authentic care in the first instance.

Opportunity – Do you find it hard to take time away from everyday operations to think more long-term? Lots of people, especially in small businesses, experience this. However, if looking at ‘people’ issues is rolled into necessary long-term and strategic planning for the business, this could help.



Does the way the organisation operates seamlessly encourage wellbeing, or do wellbeing activities feel like ‘add-ons’ to your working day?

When considering the consistency of your offer, jot down not just things the company provides directly on wellbeing (e.g. healthy eating initiatives or EAP provision), but also any ‘everyday’ things that may impact positively or negatively on employees.  Examples might be senior managers role-modelling good wellbeing practices in their own working lives, your built environment taking people’s needs into consideration, how training or appraisals that you do impact on people, whether you have skilled line managers etc…. Think laterally about all the ways the business is giving messages about whether employee wellbeing matters.

Why ask this? – People find it easier to carry out new activities, if they are similar to old activities. It’s important not to build good practices on bad (for instance tolerating bullying or encouraging overwork) but if current processes and systems are ok, then when new wellbeing activities look part and parcel of the way the business does business anyway, it’ll help people to adapt.

What does good practice look like?

  • Incorporating nudges towards good wellbeing practices into existing time and performance management systems
  • Making sure that health and safety guidance is not isolated and delivered separately from wellbeing guidance
  • Being highly aware of your workforce and their particular likes / dislikes / needs when considering new initiatives rather than flying in practices from different settings wholesale (see ‘the importance of dialogue’)

Practitioner story:

A small media company pushed back against consistent high pressure and expectations of long working hours in their industry, by trialling a 6 hour work day, but being paid for the standard full time hours. Different employees used this leeway in different ways. While people used it differently, the fear about this act of creatively challenging norms, from a business perspective, was allayed by the trial:

“So, I had worries, but … those worries didn’t actually come to fruition, we weren’t having any problems with clients, we weren’t having any problems with existing clients, we weren’t having any problems with new clients. Everybody in the office embraced it and some people embraced it differently to others. … it was at that point where you suddenly see that it is actually affecting people in a positive way but not effecting productivity. That you think well actually there is something in this.”

While this initial change was an act of creativity, the continuation of this approach during the pandemic demonstrated consistency. This company accentuated that taking time out for yourself away from the desk during the COVID-19 lockdown was part of normal working life. They demonstrated this in a variety of ways, listening to what colleagues needed, consistent with their pre-pandemic approach to listening, imagining, piloting and evolving their wellbeing approach:

“When we were having our meeting [a colleague] did say well if you want to be making more money and you want to be working more efficiently surely you should just be working an ordinary day, you should be doing 7 ½ days because you are losing a day each week. I get the logic, but I think particularly in this environment people need to have that freedom to go out for a walk or to have those breaks.

In my diary I have an hour to go for a walk in the afternoon with my family so that’s scheduled in. Everybody knows that’s going on. There are times when we will phone people for the group huddle and they won’t be there because we know that they have gone somewhere, they are out doing things.

We have let people a couple of times work remotely so they have gone to visit friends for the week but worked from their friend’s houses. Or [a colleague] went and worked from her parents’ house for a couple of days as well because she needed that freedom.

I think if we were working 7 ½ hours a day and everybody was expected to be working at the same time I don’t know how we would have survived to be honest with you. I think people would have got worn out a lot quicker and be a lot more stressed. I can’t see how it would have worked.”



As part of your wellbeing approach / strategy do you explicitly acknowledge that things may take time to improve and that you are committed to working on people-focussed challenges in the long-term?

Or, do you start initiatives but then let them slide if they do not seem possible or bringing enough ‘return’ for the investment of time?

 Often – to address commitment issues, it is useful to ask two further questions….

1) What is preventing you from taking the next step now?

 2) Whose responsibility is it to keep returning to these questions over time?

Why ask this? – Those businesses working closely with us who had thriving workplace wellbeing approaches had evolved them over time, with the support of growing numbers of people throughout the organisations as time passed. Leaders and HR professionals in those organisations were not afraid to say they had tried and stopped doing some things that did not seem to work for their workforce when they checked-in on progress . However, the reason why initiatives end is often not because of a positive cycle of listening, imagining and piloting (see the need for dialogue) but due to encountering a barrier in existing systems / colleagues or letting things slide.

What does good practice look like?

  • An organisation willing to actively learn from mistakes and persevere to overcome blocked paths, with overall commitment to improve wellbeing
  • Knowing who has responsibility for making sure that certain initiatives (like employee forums or constructive performance appraisals) actually happen. Senior leaders following this up to show they are interested and value this type of activity is important, but so is including people at all levels (see sharing the load)
  • Integrating the ‘people’ side of continuous improvement practices into other continuous improvement activities seamlessly (see consistency)

Practitioner story:

In a large construction organisation, they have committed to evolving their programme of work, with input from the senior team, but feedback from cross-programme working groups. Note how much value the person places on the process of learning:

“…so we have a number of groups that are set up across the programme that are organisation wide, mental health working groups, occupational health working groups. And these groups come together and we might say ‘from a [senior team] perspective this is what we are thinking our strategy should look like’, and they will come back and say ‘well actually we think you are on the wrong lines, this is what I am hearing from the workforce’. And they help influence that strategy.

We have gone more towards a bottom-up approach so probably four years ago when I first joined the strategy was very much top down so we would come up with all the ideas, we came up with all the initiatives and we would cascade. And then when we asked the question, so we went out to say ‘how successful are these?’, the feedback we got was in some part positive but in a lot of areas room for improvement.

So we said so how can we improve and that’s when we started getting more of the real beneficial areas to focus on, something that we never even thought about, providing financial advisors on site as an example to help with mental health. We thought we will just talk about this, that and the other and then somebody said ‘well, no, because one of the real issues of many of our people is how are they going to pay the bills when this job finishes’ or ‘when I am working away from home [I have] relationship difficulties’. So, it has evolved over time, but I think to have the mechanisms in place that we have to continually evaluate that has allowed us to be where we are now.”


Supporting behaviour change – what to consider next?

Motivation – Does the idea of committing to long-term workforce wellbeing challenge any long-standing habits or norms of the organisation (e.g. a tendency to feel that staffing is the easiest place to make savings in hard times or that offering support towards training and education is only a ‘fair weather’ activity)? Can you start to investigate the assumptions on which these habits and norms rest and check if any contemporary evidence contradicts them, as a first step to tackling the challenge?

Opportunity – Does someone within your business have enough time in their everyday role to keep returning to questions of how the wellbeing approach is evolving in the business?

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