Kenneth Freeman considers the importance of Employee wellbeing

04/10/2011

By Kenneth Freeman

Does wellbeing in the workplace really matter? Surely, for most organizations, the bottom line is the ultimate key performance indicator and as long as an organization doesn’t actually break the law and compromise health and safety, then why expend effort on creating a working environment that actively promotes wellbeing?

After all, proponents of lean working systems (and other variants of FW Taylor’s “scientific management” theories) have been systematically (although - one hopes - not intentionally) eroding psychological comfort in the workplace for over a hundred years, all in the name of efficiency. With budgets under pressure and unemployment growing, where is the imperative to actively improve wellbeing beyond the minimum standards required? After all, with a weak job market, employees are a lot less likely to walk away.

However, a gloomy economy and uncertain outlook for many employees is probably going to have a negative effect on mood. People may feel trapped in an environment that they can no-longer control, and that they feel they can’t walk away from. That breeds resentment and other negative behaviours.

Losing control over one’s own destiny is hugely disempowering, and we know from research that disempowerment has huge impacts on wellbeing and psychological comfort. This is manifested in reduced “corporate citizenship behaviour” - people are less likely to help their colleagues with a tricky task or put in a little extra effort in getting a job done early. Altruism goes out of the window and with it any sense of an esprit de corps. Productivity suffers and, when things do start to get better, people will walk away. In the meantime, companies continue to dispose of non-essentials, such as office plants, biscuits, free drinks and fruit in the name of economy and with the message that it is surely better to get rid of the ephemera instead of people. That might well be the message that the organization hopes to deliver, but to an already pressured workforce, it can suggest that things must be worse than they actually are and a spiral of negativity ensues.

So, if disempowering people has the effect of reducing wellbeing with the consequential negative outcomes for an organization, would promoting wellbeing have a positive effect (or at least a neutral effect)? The evidence seems to suggest that it does. Controlled experiments and case studies have shown that when employers try to improve the working environment and empower office workers to control aspects of a work space, wellbeing scores go up and with such improvement comes better productivity and identification with colleagues and the organization. In fact, identification with colleagues and employers can be much more powerful than any financial reward or incentive scheme. Within my own company, focus groups and informal discussions - together with more formal engagement surveys - show that, for many people, motivation comes straight out a desire to do a good job for colleagues, the company and one’s own sense of achievement and self-respect - and this is reflected at many levels in the company.

Before we go any further, let’s discuss what we mean by “wellbeing”. Martin Seligman - a distinguished psychologist and proponent of “Positive Psychology” talks about wellbeing as being made up of five measurable elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. Interestingly, physical health is not an element in itself, although good health is likely to be associated with positive emotion. Seligman’s approach to wellbeing theory has been used to measure aspects of national mood (David Cameron’s much derided “Happiness Index” actually has a foundation in real, scientific, wellbeing theory and, perhaps, shouldn’t be dismissed quite as easily by cynical commentators as it has been). In the work place, it is easy to see how wellbeing can be affected - all five of Seligman’s wellbeing elements can be influenced in most work places.

Positive emotion can be influenced by obvious management behaviours- praise and recognition, for example. But it can also be affected by the physical environment. In his recent book, “The Nature Principle”, Richard Louv cites dozens of research papers and case studies that build a convincing case for the restorative effects of being in a natural environment. Simple pleasures such as a walk in the woods or a visit to a park or garden have been shown to reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. Anti-social behaviour in inner cities has been linked to the lack of access to open, green space (so-called “Nature Deficit Disorder”) and doctors are even prescribing walks in the countryside as part of a healing regimen. Five minutes exposure to nature is enough to make a difference (although the more, the better), according to research carried out at the University of Essex in the UK.

The power of nature to restore one’s sense of wellbeing is surely beyond doubt. It has been implicitly acknowledged for centuries (pleasure gardens and parks have been the features of cities since ancient times - even hard-nosed Victorian industrialists funded parks for factory workers to enjoy in their limited spare time). Within the workplace, we are also able to create spaces that promote wellbeing. The recent Channel 4 series “The Secret Life of Buildings” highlighted many examples where workplaces were designed with wellbeing in mind - notably in the Netherlands. However, it isn’t actually necessary to build wacky buildings with weird angles to achieve this. Restorative, nature-inspired plant displays or art can also have a huge effect at very little cost, and provide a colourful riposte to the proponents of lean, unenriched, disempowered, sterile working environments.

This article first appeared in Personnel Zone Online www.personnelzone.com

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