Professor Kevin Daniels has spent the last three years working with safety practitioners in high profile organisations to understand how they can most effectively improve wellbeing in their workplaces. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, a government affiliated organisation funding research on economic and social issues. Part of the research was also included in a report issued in December 2019, The Value of Occupational Health to Workplace Wellbeing.
Safety Management spoke with report co-author Professor Daniels, professor of organizational behaviour at University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School, to discuss some of the key findings, which are summarised here. How can health and safety professionals make the most impact when it comes to wellbeing? Here are six ways.
1. You need to make the financial case, but it’s not the only case you should make.
It’s tempting to leverage arguments for investing time or money into wellbeing using the multitude of data available on the topic of wellbeing – whether that’s money lost through presenteeism or gained by investing in staff motivation.
But the report says there is a risk that arguments based purely on financial matters will be unpicked by those more conversant in finance than you. “One of our key findings is that if you’re an occupational health or safety practitioner, if you start making financial arguments with accountants, you can find yourself on dodgy ground,” shares Professor Daniels.
Those who got the most support for their wellbeing ideas and initiatives, said Daniels, were the professionals who aligned their ideas with the organisation’s strategy and business objectives. This included at a firm of accountants, who – surprising given the firm’s speclialism – gained support for wellbeing initiatives by focusing on the firm’s strategic imperative, which was employer retention and attractiveness.
“The actual argument for change was ‘what kind of employer are we; how do we look after our people?’ And then you get a change where senior partners are leading mindfulness initiatives, so it changes from a very skeptical to a much more engaged senior management,” he tells us.
His sums up the point: “It’s thinking about what you want to be like as an employer. Don’t just appeal to the money, appeal to what the organisation’s strategy is and how it contributes to the strategy.”
2. Don’t underestimate the power of narrative
A common barrier to organisations’ taking up workplace wellbeing programmes is management interest, found the report.
Professor Daniels says using real life examples and narratives to gain the support of managers for your wellbeing programmes can be really powerful. “It might be identifying a willing candidate, such as a particular manager who has had a mental health issue and getting them to talk about how work has helped them overcome it and what this has meant for the company,” he explains.
3. There are five areas to act which will make the biggest difference to employee wellbeing.
The five areas the report identified in which to act when it comes to making the biggest improvements to wellbeing are: Management capabilities; Improving job quality; Enhancing social relationships at work; Providing support for workers coping with health conditions and/or life stresses and Workplace health promotion.
Professor Daniels says: “No silver bullet or one size fits all. We recommend an integrated strategy looking at these five elements. You need a strategy with several components. Within that, it’s worth saying organisations might already be doing several of these things, it’s just a case of bringing them into the same folder.”
4. Train line managers to enhance job quality for their people
It’s not surprising – with the recent focus on ‘good work’ under government advisor, Matthew Taylor – that improving job quality was identified as a key factor in wellbeing in the report. The fulfilment we get at work, from our interactions with colleagues to the degree of pride in the task at hand, all play a huge role in our capacity to stay mentally and physically well at work.
Companies who encourage managers to act in ways that support their employees’ experience of their job, can make a difference to job quality, says Professor Daniels. “There are emerging ideas that you can also train line managers to enhance job quality for people.
“For example, [if managers are taught to delegate more] that’s increasing the employees’ control over their work and their ability to use their skills, so naturally it means enriching their own jobs. Managers can be taught to be more supportive; to regulate demands, rather than leaving it to organizational processes to sort out.”
When it comes to mental health training for managers, it has its place, particularly around supporting a return to work, but he adds: “When we talk to people around what they want in a manager, they don’t want a psychotherapist, they want people skills that are routinely taught in business schools – delegation, communication, clarification and to be more supportive to regulate demands.”
5. Departments with responsibility for wellbeing can learn from each other, and should work in the same direction – but often don’t
Wellbeing can be managed by any department nowadays. The report polled 62 organisations. It found that of these, 51 per cent said wellbeing was deployed by the occupational health department, 65 per cent; human resources, 41 per cent have a wellbeing manager and for 29 per cent it’s health and safety that run or deploy wellbeing.
Professor Daniels sees an opportunity for wellbeing managers to learn from colleagues in high hazard sectors: “In safety it’s all about the systems that support underlying behaviours and attitudes, rather than set practices. What we’ve seen in the construction industry, building those safer cultures has been very strategic and come from the very top. I think there’s a lot of learning there.” He admits the challenges are that it can be “political with a small p”: “In the larger organizations, what we tend to see is the demarcation of health, safety and wellbeing.