And if we're quoting age-old adages, I would also quote Hertzberg Frederick Hertzberg who said, if you want people to do a good job to give them a good job to do.
Welcome to that Wellbeing @ Work Show show I'm Chris Taylor, your show host. Many organizations today employ a range of benefits and initiatives neatly gathered together under the banner of wellbeing. All well and good you say, but this week's expert guests argues organizations need to stop using initiatives in isolation and instead look much deeper at issues such as job design, quality of management and individual workload. To paraphrase my guest, we need to move on from the warm, but soon to cool glow of isolated wellbeing initiatives to something that genuinely sticks. Stephen Bevan is head of HR Research Development at the Institute for Employment Studies..
Stephen has almost 40 years of experience in the field of HR research with highly sought after expertise in workforce wellbeing, performance, and poroductivity. Stephen has numerous publications on health at work to his name. And he was an expert witness to a review of NICE guidance on workplace mental health, which was published in March of this year.
He has recently published a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper, entitled The Healthy Workforce, Enhancing Wellbeing and Productivity In The Workers Of The Future. Stephen begins the interview by unpacking some of the confusion about what wellbeing at work really means. Stephen, when we first chatted to arrange this interview, you mentioned the evangelism surrounding wellbeing, and it does seem that everywhere that you look organizations are banging on about their wellbeing credentials. I wondered if you might start by giving us a bit of a history lesson about how we've got to where we are?
Yes. Well, I suppose one of the issues that I see a lot when I talk to employers, is that most of them are of course, genuinely interested in making sure they go beyond their sort of legal duty of care towards their employees. You know, there's, there's sort of a legal precedent for that Health and Safety at Work Act from 74, but that's primarily focuses on people's sort of, you know, prevention of accidents and exposure to hazardous materials and so on.
Yes, it was sort of written sort of in terms of factories wasn't it really? And I mean, I'll work with our work was different then.
But, but the concept of wellbeing doesn't really fit quite so neatly into that model. Cause it's sort of life and limb and wellbeing is slightly more complex than that. I mean, it is, it can be about, you know, people feeling fulfilled in their work at one level particularly if that protects them against, you know, an elevated risk of depression or anxiety, for example. So I think that yeah employers have been struggling for years to try and work out what it is they can do to go beyond their health and safety duties and some of them have chosen the path of providing benefits for their employees. So they will offer them, you know, fruit bowls and you know, the option to eat lettuce in the canteen and subsidized gym membership and, fun runs and pedometer challenges and so on.
And you know, on their own, there's no harm in doing that at all. I mean, the danger of course, is that it's only people who are already looking after their health or, you know, being very active in terms of trying to make behavioral changes, like stopping smoking or losing weight and so on, who will take part in those sorts of things.
And actually for the most part, there's almost no evidence at all they make very much difference to people's health, but they do give people a sense of belonging and a sense that their employer is taking care of them and is concerned about their wellbeing and I suppose that the real test is if an employer does those things, what are they measuring? Are they measuring whether people are healthier or they take less sickness, absence, or their recovery time from illness or injury is quicker? No, they don't almost exclusively, they don't, they measure how many people eat the lettuce or eat the fruit or go to the gym. So they measure take-up rather than the long-term benefits.
Now there are other organizations and unfortunately there are far fewer of them. Who are genuinely interested in trying to promote positive health outcomes for their employees. And, you know, they are doing things like, you know, blood glucose, monitoring, health risk assessments, trying to help people who've got chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or fluctuating conditions, like multiple sclerosis to really live full and fulfilling working lives and to stay for as long as possible at work.
Or they're trying to avoid people in situations where they're working so intense that no matter how individually resilient people are, they're always going to succumb to work pressure or work intensity. And so rather than dealing with the symptoms of the problem, which sometimes the benefits approach does, some organizations are trying to get back to the real root causes and say, it's actually the way people are managed. It's the jobs that they do, the way that work is organised that actually is going to have the most sustained impact on people's wellbeing at work. That's far more difficult to do, but most of the evidence is it's far more effective if you really care about health.
Well, I was, I was going to ask, I was going to come on to that, and actually you pre-empted it, but you know, it, you can have all the, you know, the wellbeing and all the initiatives and as you say, fruit bowls and healthy canteens and beanbags and ping pong and all sorts of things going on at work and, and fantastic activities. But if you're working for you know, a horrible manager or the organizational culture is toxic. Nothing will change that unless you change the leadership will it?
Well, that's that's the challenge I think. You know, perhaps the best example of that is this interest that there is currently in resilience training. And I did a piece of work for a French owned company that had operations in the UK and in France, and they were interested in why their sickness, absence levels were so different in the two countries. You know the UK part, they were very keen on resilience, training, stress management, and so on. Whereas in France, when I went to talk to their managers there and particularly the trade unions they really wouldn't countenance the idea of doing anything around resilience because for the French workers, if you're trying to promote resilience, what you're doing is saying your stress is your own fault. And we need to get you to sharpen up and to become more resilient, more strong, and more able to cope with all these pressures, but we're not going to do anything about the pressure. So although it's, it's easy to get, you know, rather too sort of polarised about all this, but you know, at the end of the day, people's well psychological wellbeing particularly is affected not just by their own character or their own, predisposition to stress or anxiety its to do with the pressure that's on them, either from home, from their finances from relationships, or from their work. And so if you just put people through a sheep dip of resilience training and say, well, now we've put you through this, you should be able to cope with anything we throw at you, almost absolves the management from doing anything about it. So you can send someone back after resilience training program to a toxic job or to deadlines that are impossible, or to a manager who's a bully, you're gonna end up back at square one.
No, absolutely. I mean, do you, do you think resilience training has any, I mean, has any place in an organization sort of armory in terms of equipping its employees to deal with deal with the stress of work or not? Would you say that actually it's, it's not the route to go down. What would you say?
It's a bit like many of these things. I mean, I would put things like mental health first aid in the same category. You know, they overwhelmingly as interventions get positive feedback from people who go on them. You know, people really enjoy and find them quite enlightening and, you know, empowering to, to go on the training for these sorts of things. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the evidence shows that the, that sort of warm glow that you get from going on and doesn't really translate sustainably into change behavior. So if you go back six months or a year later, most people have forgotten what they've learned or haven't had the opportunity to put it into practice. Now I hesitate to say that they're not worth doing at all because it partly depends on what else you're doing. My worry about things like mental health first aid, for example, is that too many organizations use it in isloation. They think that, you know, they tick the box on stress management and mental health because they've put, they've got mental health, first aid trainers and so on.
And it does worry me that, if that's all you're doing and not doing anything about job design or quality of management or workload and so on, then you will end up going back to square one. So I think its as much to do with how they used and what other policies and practices are put in alongside them to support them that means that they'll either be successful or not.
Okay. I mean, some organizations might say that actually a little bit of stress and maybe that people do say employees say, actually that's not good for my mental health and I'm not going to do that piece of my, of that job because it's not good for me. I mean, for, for everyone, for all of us, I mean, occasionally it's good to be uncomfortable isn't it? And being pushed into doing something, not pushed perhaps is the wrong word, but being encouraged or taking a risk and doing something and actually do raising our stress a little bit, because actually it helps us grow as individuals.
Yeah, I think there's a lot to that. I think there's plenty of science that supports the view that, you know, up to a certain point and a threshold, a certain amount of stress and pressure can be really positive for performance. And there's quite a lot of evidence that people can work at quite high levels of intensity for quite a long time where they're feeling pressure, but that's the sort of constructive pressure. But the thing that makes a difference between people who thrive under those circumstances and those who fall over, it's the amount of control and autonomy and discretion they have in their jobs. I was speaking yesterday to someone who works in primary care in the NHS. And obviously that's an incredibly pressurized environment. But this person was saying that actually, you know, the massive amount of pressure that she was working under was actually manageable because people trusted her to do her job the way she saw fit, and schedule things the way that worked best for her and for patients. And it was massively liberating thing for her. She was absolutely loving her job, even though she was under a lot of pressure.
So in that instance, then management has got out of her way. She's able to, to create her role. And as you say, manage her own role and prioritize the tasks that she's going to do them in the order that she would like to do them to make her feel that she's in control of that role. Is that what managers a good managers do is they actually step out of the way of, of the, of the high performers and let them do what they need to do?
Pretty much. I think you know, there's been lots of research over the last 40 years on high-performance work practices. And, I think, you know, one of the compelling findings that comes up time and time again, is that, you know, managers who not just step back and trust people, but secure people, resources and help them achieve clarity about overall what's expected of them, but then let people have quite a lot of autonomy to decide how they go about it are the ones who are more successful, and produced more sustained results and, you know, enable people to feel well and fulfilled and satisfied in their jobs. I mean, the key thing here is that it's not a choice between a productive workplace and a healthy workplace. The two link together. I mean, it's massively linked. Some people like to characterize this as a, as a zero sum game. I literally had a quote from a very senior manager in a large organization just a few months ago, who said that he felt that stress at work was a far better motivator for performance, than any wellbeing program. You know, he genuinely believed that he was arguing against all this sort of, you know, mollycoddling of putting people into cotton wool and treat people, people like grownups and they, if they can't stand the heat, they should get out the kitchen.
That's quite an approach, isn't it?
An approach yes!
I was sorta thinking that might be a sort of a city financial institution, but, you probably wouldn't be able to say that
I couldn't possibly comment
Is it I was just thinking, but is wellbeing really new? I was, I was just looking at, you know, when you sort of get back to the Quaker family that Cadbury's, you know, they set up it Bournville and they built an entire sort of town or village for there sort of chocolate factory workers. And you had parks and, and doctor surgeries and housing and, you know, sort of houses with inside bathrooms and toilets and things. I mean, It's not new is it? Nothing's new about this? Really? If you look back at, as you say, there's sort of Quaker organizations that you know, the Cadburys, for example,
Yeah that's right. I mean, it was very paternalistic and there was of course enlightened self-interest involved because they realized that, you know, particular, if you're running a production unit for everyday, you've got someone off sick you're less able to be as agile and productive as you'd like to be. But I mean, that's true. I mean, I think, you know, even today, if you talk to Unilever, for example, they talk very proudly about Port Sunlight and the work that they've done over many years actually on employee wellbeing. For some that is quite a paternalistic approach because you know, in their third world country operations, they, they do provide a lot of support for people's families and local communities and so on as well. So it's not a new concept. I think the extent to which it's become it's either medicalized or not I think is interesting. And I think some companiesyou know ask people to give quite a lot of information about their medical history and their, you know, their, biometric measurements and so on because they take a more medical approach. They're looking at risks of cardiovascular disease, for example. In some countries that would just not be acceptable because of medical confidentiality and so on. And that sort of ethical point about whether or not you go over a line asking your employees to give you their medical data, for example.
Well, I mean, that's an interesting point. Cause I mean, you know, I would sort of be uncomfortable about, you know, giving all of my medical data that's, you know, held with my, with, with my doctor, to my organization. I think actually that's none of their business. If I go home and drink a bottle of scotch every night, providing I'm a high performer in the office every day. Does it, is it really any of their business?
. I mean, it is, it is a sort of partly a cultural thing. I mean, I think there are some countries Austria, for example if you're an employer you're not allowed to know why an employee's off sick. You know, that information is kept to them. And you're also not allowed to know how long are they going to be away from because of medical confidentiality and unless they're prepared to tell you that makes it quite hard to manage sort of vocational rehabilitation and adjustments when you come back to work and so on. Whereas other parts of the world who knows those sorts of things are relatively, simple and straightforward. So I think there are both ethical and cultural issues. I suppose if you believe that your employer has your best interests at heart, and they have a health rated programs that are really going to support you, particularly, for example, if you want to make behavioral change to your lifestyle, your diet, your exercise, your nutrition, your smoking, and so on. Then it's a sort of pact, isn't it? It's a deal you do with your employer that you'll get support but they're not going to make judgements about you or share your information.
Okay. So if you, if you sort of stripped all this back and you said, okay, right from day one you know, we're going to put up with, but we're concerned about our employees wellbeing. We're going to put some, put, you know, put some measures in place. And we're going to think about this and design a program and design, the whole messaging around it. What would you, if you could start from scratch, what would you tell an organization to do?
Well, goodness. I mean, if I was going just from what the evidence says, then I wouldn't be going down the route of having lots of fancy eye-catching gizmos, or interventions that make me look good, but really don't make much impact. And the uncomfortable truth is that most of the things that make a difference are systemic. They're to do with the way the organization is managed, its culture, the quality of line management, the amount of control and autonomy people have in their jobs. And most crucially the balance between the demands on people, in their jobs and the resources they have available to them. And that's usually psychological resources. So I think it's about designing jobs well, training managers to be aware of the contribution they make to people's wellbeing and flourishing at work and so on. And that all sounds very woolly because it's much easier for me to say, well, you should definitely have more fruit in the canteen and so on, or you should make sure that people are doing regular exercise. You know, it's not as simple as that, unfortunately and I think that it comes down to partly a state of mind, partly about leadership, recognizing that they have to go beyond their legal duty of care to keep people safe, not just about people going home safely every day. And it's creating a work environment where people feel able to give, best of themselves.
And also that they know that they're going to be able to be fulfilled in what they do. And I think I see a direct sort of golden triangle between wellbeing, performance and things like retention and commitment and so on of people to the organization. And they're massively powerful things in combination. And I think that's definitely worth bearing in mind. So I will be making sure that all the things you're trying to do to maximize performance and retention and attraction and commitment are working because they also affect people's wellbeing at work.
And do you think that the pandemic was a bit of a tipping point then that actually we've all now started to get back to the office now hybrid working seems to be in place for the millions of people sort of three days in the office or three days at home or whatever it is. Do you think that in itself will help contribute to people feeling better about their work?
I think what's happened, we've been doing, we've been tracking using surveys people across a range of sectors since the beginning of the first lockdown in March, 2020. We saw quite a few significant issues around things like musculoskeletal health and pain and sleep and fatigue and mental health and so on particular in the first few months, gradually, most of those things have got better. I think sleep and fatigue actually haven't very much. But what it's also shown is that, you know, many of the things that some managers said could never be done, you know, allowing so many people to work remotely, for example, are possible.
And actually people can be as productive if not more productive. Obviously we've had to be a lot more alert to those people, perhaps with an elevated risk of isolation, those people who, you know, whose mental health has not improved since a lockdown started and I, what I see happening and we have data to support this is that more and more organizations are basically doing sort of almost individual deals with employees to say, well, what's the pattern of work that suits you? Are there certain tasks in your job that are best done at home or remotely, or are there certain tasks that aren't time dependent? So there are there being a lot more permissive than they ever would be even three years ago. And I think ultimately that sort of sovereignty people have over their working time and the working place will in the longterm been very beneficial to people's wellbeing.
No, absolutely. I mean, I think that's very interesting. So if you're given, you're giving, you know, you're having a conversation now then with your employees about the work that they do and how they would like to do that piece of work. And as you say, that is giving them a certain amount of sovereignty, isn't it? Over their day and autonomy and decision-making which as you say, goes back to the very basic, the heart of all of this in a way, is that actually if you allow people to do the work in the way they would like to do it that actually the outcome is more positive. Is that right?
It is. I mean, go back to my, NHS example, I gave you a few minutes ago. I mean, you shouldn't get the wrong end of the statement. This is just about creating a job or a configuration of a job that benefits only the job holder in the NHS arm example. You know, there, there was a real struggle to balance the needs for delivering high levels of quality care but also making sure that the job that the person was doing was still doable. It wasn't so intense that they were inevitably going to fall over and the autonomy that the person I spoke to got meant that she was able to make really good clinical judgments about what's in the best interest of the patients. And as a by-product of that, she was thriving in the job and wasn't suffering from from terrible workload problems or deadline problems. So it's that mutuality of benefit that I think we've got to search for. It's a sweet spot that we've got a search for in this.
Okay. And in terms of, I mean, it sounds like then if you're going to sort of consider your employees wellbeing and everything else that actually this needs to come from the leadership this needs to come from the very top. It's not something you can just sort of add on to HR's workload and say well actually to the HR Director or the People Director. Do you know what? You can do that.
No, I mean, I think there certainly our research doing lockdown on people's wellbeing has shown how pivotal the role of the line manager is in all this. Most of them to be honest, have stepped up really well. Yeah. And, you know, they've adapted, um, it's not been easy for them but we found many of them have, you know, done really well and have learnt a lot about letting go, but also providing clarity, keeping in regular contact. We found that if you had more regular contact with your manager, your mental health was a lot better. I, so I think that line managers are key here. They need to be helped by two groups, the HR profession and, you know, I think there do remain questions about what the role of HR is in a newly configured hybrid working organization and the other group, I would say are really important is Occupational Health. I suppose my worry here is that well, it's not exclusively the case, in many organizations, particularly those who are outsourcing Occupational Health, what they're essentially buying in is the patching people up, getting them back to work as soon as possible, but then not really getting them to do the risk assessment, the prevention, the stuff that enables you to highlight that someone a job may be inherently open to an elevated level of work stress, and doing something about it before people get ill. And that is the part that sometimes goes missing. And so it's actually a nice partnership between line managers, HR, and Occupational Health. It should allow you to spot the early warning signs that someone's job demands are going to be overwhelming their resources to cope.
Okay. And it's extraordinary that it comes back to the age old sort of adage that actually people don't leave their job, they leave their manager ultimately. Would you say that's true?
I think it is true, I think and if we're quoting age old adages, I would also quote, Hertzberg, Frederick Hertzberg. Who said, if you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do. And this is about job quality. You know, it's about giving people autonomy and discretion, social support, and so on, and they will do a good job for you and a really positive by-product is they'll be well.
Stephen Bevan. Thank you very much, indeed.