The original version of this blog is available at: Promoting evidence-informed workplace wellbeing relies on people recognising themselves in evidence-informed examples | The Society of Occupational Medicine (som.org.uk)
SOM and CIPD make a strong case for businesses to pay systematic attention to workplace wellbeing with the launch of their new report The value of Occupational Health and Human Resources in supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. In this blog, Dr Helen Fitzhugh from the Workplace Wellbeing Research Team at the University of East Anglia takes the opportunity to reflect on six years of research, engagement and training businesses on this topic – highlighting how moments of recognition seem to help move people forwards towards committing to this type of systematic good practice.
The first time I started speaking to people about what makes good workplace wellbeing, it was 2017, I was armed with a small, newly developed infographic on one side of A4 paper entitled ‘How to Improve Workplace Wellbeing’ and some evidence points supplied by my colleague Prof Kevin Daniels. The systematic reviews and research our team were carrying out identified many areas in which workplace wellbeing was linked to better outcomes for individuals and organisations and it was time to share these insights beyond academia. Let loose on local businesses, I interviewed them on whether they were aware of established links between aspects of performance and employee wellbeing, what they were doing on wellbeing and what barriers they were experiencing to improvement. This was pre-Covid but already managers knew wellbeing was an issue they needed to engage with. Yet they were often riddled with doubts: about how to persuade senior leaders to invest in wellbeing initiatives, how to make the right choices on what wellbeing initiatives to offer, and on how to start shifting toxic cultures that led to burnout and disengagement.
Fast forward six years to November 2023 and I am standing in front of a room of private and public sector managers at a PrOPEL Hub event in Glasgow. Drawing on an entire research team’s worth of work over several years, I’ve graduated from 1 side of A4 to 36 slides over two hours, with discussion and activities peppered throughout. From our evidence-based Evolve Workplace Wellbeing toolkit – I know that I can now address a number of those manager doubts. I can offer links to our Workplace Wellbeing Business Case Calculator (based on Britain’s Healthiest Workforce data from Vitality) to help them build an evidence-informed case for senior managers and inform on which initiatives are cost-effective. I can direct people worried about their organisational culture towards our Evolve PDF guide so they can work steadily towards better communication and consistency in their approach. I can offer checklists, infographics and reports on topics like hybrid work or long-standing conditions. Yet, I also know that for people to take on board the evidence, addressing their doubtful emotions is necessary. My evaluation feedback suggests the importance of finding a point of recognition in participants where the evidence meets their experiences. As researchers we can offer this through case studies and small stories that build on distilled reviews and analysis, to convey a deeper truth.
This is where I usually start talking about ‘The Spangle Trap’. Spangles are objects that are shiny and distracting. When businesses fall into ‘The Spangle Trap’ they focus only on occasional gifts / events rather than building workplace wellbeing into the way the organisation operates on an everyday basis. From our research, we know this happens when organisations are obsessed with ‘quick wins’ and ‘looking busy’ on wellbeing, rather than approaching it with authentic intentions towards long-term improvement. The spangles can be gifts of branded merchandise (a water bottle, a stress ball), wellbeing classes or days, fruit on tables etc. – not bad things in themselves, but damaging when the employees realise they are a sticking plaster instead of authentic action to improve working conditions and experiences based on sound evidence (see our toolkit on authenticity building).
Often when I offer the ‘spangle trap’ idea, there are a fair few sheepish smiles or outbursts from the room where people recognise their organisation. In one workshop a manager looked at their colleagues and announced “We are soooo spangley!” and everyone laughed. In another someone waved their water bottle at me frantically. The silliness of the name belies the importance of the realisation about what workplace wellbeing is. The memorable name encapsulates an emotional resonance that many people recognise – of feeling jaded about being fobbed off with superficial wellbeing action when the fundamentals have not been addressed. It releases them from the shiny Instagram version of workplace wellbeing and allows us to start talking about the hard but important work of a non-flashy, committed review of their organisation and its processes.
It is just this type of non-flashy action that the SOM and CIPD report encourages via a focus on prevention and mitigation through processes, not just reactive action for individuals or waiting for people to get ill and then attempting rehabilitation. We and they both highlight what is important and how to move forward via action and review. The Evolve Workplace Wellbeing toolkit offers detail on this, based on a whole research team’s work from seven years of Economic and Social Research Council funding for research on wellbeing and productivity. It also offers stories – via case studies, research-into-practice podcasts and video examples, because, from what I have learnt to date, promoting evidence-informed workplace wellbeing relies on people recognising themselves in evidence-informed examples with feeling. I encourage other researchers to bring their own examples to life. Our movement towards better workplace health and wellbeing will flourish from it.