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Healthy employees – a strategic imperative, why not?

15th May, 2019

Geoff McDonald



My work over the last 5 years, addressing the stigma of mental ill health in workplaces has taken me to many sectors and workplaces here in the UK and beyond.

 

We have undoubtedly seen a significant increase in the interest being generated by work places with regards to the mental health and wellbeing agenda. However, we still seem a long way from workplaces regarding the mental health and overall health of employees as a strategic priority.

 

Although more and more workplaces are participating in wellbeing type activities, such as wellbeing weeks and mental health awareness weeks, it all still seems somewhat ad hoc and at times “tick box” exercise. Not a strategic priority.

 

The workplace as a force for good

 

The most important driver of individual, team and organisation performance is the ‘Energy’ of people; or the human capacity that individuals have to perform at their best; or their passion to get things done.

 

So, it has been remarkable to note that most organisations and work places that I encounter tend to ‘suck’ every bit of energy out of people.

 

Employees can’t wait for a Friday afternoon and that walk out of the office door, and tend to dread a Monday morning.

 

Yet workplaces should be places that enhances the lives of people. Work gives people a sense of Purpose. Work gives people a routine. Work gives people the opportunity to connect with others. Work can contribute to individuals feeling needed. Work offers people the opportunity to earn a living.  

 

All these ‘connections” are critical in enhancing people’s lives and contribute positively towards wellbeing.

 

We also know that we get our energy by looking after our wellbeing. According to the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing scale, this includes our physical, emotional(feelings); mental (cognitive ability) and spiritual health. These are the drivers of our wellbeing and thus our energy.

 

If we accept the premise that energy/health is a key driver of individual, team and organisation performance, then the questions to Executive teams, CEOs, CFOs etc, that come to mind are:

 

1.    Is the health/wellbeing of your employees a strategic priority, if not, why not?

2.    If it is not a strategic priority, where is it on the risk matrix of the organisation, and are you as a leadership comfortable with the actions you are taking to mitigate the risk of unhealthy, costly individuals?

3.    If it is a strategic priority, are you comfortable with the level of investment you give to this priority vs. your other strategic priorities?

 

 

What is holding workplaces back?

 

There are very few workplaces that I have encountered that see the health of their employees, including their mental health, as a strategic priority.

 

This is also evidenced by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, ‘Dying for a Paycheck”. His research shows how modern management harms employee health and workplace performance. The stories are almost endless and the costs to people, their employees and the larger society are enormous.

 

In his book, Pfeffer also refers to an inconvenient truth in organisations today – Social Pollution. This is where employers don’t really care about the health of employees and so it is not surprising that they are not a strategic priority. Simply put, they just don’t care!

 

What other factors may be contributing to why organisations do not view the health of their people as a strategic priority?

 

1.    They do not know how to tackle this issue. It is seen as too complex.This complexity is increased by the old adage that people’s health is a personal matter and we don’t engage in matters of a personal nature at work. Many still believe that work is about being a “professional” and that employees should leave their personal issues at home. More and more it is my experience that this is an outdated view of the world of work. In fact, we need to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.

 

2.    There is no organisation accountability to enhance the health of people at work.There is a great deal of organisation accountability to ensure we keep people safe at work. Legislation demands that we do this. However, as Jeffrey Pfeffer would assert, many employers simply don’t care about the health of their employees. In the absence of legislation, there is no need to enhance the lives/health of people at work. Therefore, many organisations take no accountability to try achieve this.

 

3.    Finally, there is no accountability for individuals to maintain their own health.This is mainly because we don’t see health as a driver of our performance. Most employers do not include energy in their performance management equation. In fact, they assert that the only drivers of individual performance are skills, knowledge, behaviours and experience. This is because employers didn’t know what gave people energy and couldn’t measure it. We now know that wellbeing gives people energy. And we can measure it. So why would we not now include it as a key performance driver? Imagine an organisation where, in addition to their development plan based on skills, knowledge and behaviour, individuals also have a wellbeing plan, for which they will be held accountable. Why is this key? Because wellbeing is a driver of energy and energy is the most important driver of performance!

 

So, what might the future look like? Might we soon see legislation here in the UK, that begins to ‘force’ organisations to take accountability for the health of their employees?

 

The current work taking place within the Health and Safety Executive, with regards to the development of psychological safety standards in the workplace, may suggest something is on its way.

 

Where will you be as an organisation? Will you be ahead of the curve, or behind the curve in your efforts to enhance the health of your employees? Will you be ahead or behind when it comes to developing an employee value proposition that enhances people’s lives?

 

As more and more young talented people demand this from their organisations, this approach will increasingly be a real differentiator in today’s stressful workplaces.

 

Organisation accountability – what might that look like?

 

An organisation that is accountable for the wellbeing of its employees could be a workplace where:

·     the health of employees is seen as a strategic priority

·     it is investing in resources that enhance the health of its people at all levels of the Warwick-Edinburgh mental wellbeing scale (namely physical, emotional, mental) and defining the Purpose of the workplace beyond growth, profitability, etc.

·     the budget for enhancing health is on par with that of safety, and is not a limited budget available one week a year to run a wellbeing programme.

·     a change programme is put behind this. This will have a real impact on the way we work – way beyond having a few bananas next to the till in the canteen; or nuts in meeting rooms instead of sweets.

 

In other words, in an organisation that is accountable for the wellbeing of its employees, wellbeing will be seen as a real strategic imperative and will be treated as such, with leadership advocacy etc.

 

Where does individual accountability fit into the equation?

 

Individual accountability in my view would involve building health into the performance management system. This position could include:

·      enhancing an individual’s health as a development opportunity to perform better

·      real wellbeing plans to be put in place for individuals that enable them to draw on the resources the organisation invests to enhance their health

·      the development of conversations with line managers, where organisations have recognised the stressors and strains that they cause

·      just as we hold people accountable for using the organisation’s safety resources to stay safe, the same approach would be taken to ensure employees engage in the resources available to keep them healthy

 

Moving from stigma to solutions

 

None of the above can be achieved if we do not in parallel address the stigma of mental and emotional health in workplaces. We want workplaces where people can have a truly honest, open and human conversation in agreeing their wellbeing plan.

 

The up and coming Mad World Summit will provide delegates with ample opportunities to learn how to address the stigma of mental ill health in organisations. It will also provide practical insights into how to implement sustainable solutions that support and promote the mental health and wellbeing of employees.


Geoff McDonald

Prior to becoming a global advocate, campaigner and consultant, Geoff McDonald was Global VP HR, Talent, Marketing, Communications, Sustainability & Water with Unilever. Geoff is very much sought after as a speaker, inspiring and provoking organisations to put purpose and wellbeing at the centre of everything they do. His experience in Unilever, under the pupillage of Paul Polman, allows him to provide very practical insights and to speak on how to go about truly embedding PURPOSE and address the taboo associated with wellbeing (particularly mental health) within a large global multi-national organisation. With this experience comes some real learning on what may or may not work. He recently had the opportunity to engage with Pope Francis on how we create a more sustainable and inclusive economy through his work with the Global Foundation.

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