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2017: a big year for workplace wellbeing

Sir Cary Cooper and Ben Moss in conversation

Our Founding Director Cary Cooper and MD Ben Moss were having lunch just before Christmas and found themselves chatting about the year that’s just passed in workplace wellbeing… and what’s to come in 2017. They didn’t agree on everything, but there was one thing that they were both convinced of: 2017 will be the year of the Wellbeing Strategy. Here’s why:

Making it cultural

Cary Cooper: I’m convinced we’ve now hit the tipping point with wellbeing strategy—that is, health and wellbeing has firmly become a strategic issue for companies and it’s here to stay. That’s not to say, though, that the majority of firms have a strategy properly planned and implemented!

Ben Moss: Yes, that’s certainly my experience. This year I’ve noticed that our clients and other businesses inside the Good Day At Work community have a greater acceptance of the necessity to have a wellbeing strategy—a strategy that pulls all wellbeing activities together and is focused on the long-term. The penny has dropped; just investing in a large variety of health-related activities and calling that a strategy isn’t necessarily going to add up to much. That’s an important realisation, but as you suggest it’s not the same as solving the problem and actually designing and implementing that elusive strategy. 

Cary Cooper: That’s true, but I think what’s important in that realisation is that the owners of wellbeing inside businesses are finally seeing it as a cultural issue. When you make wellbeing cultural you enable managers and leaders to make the connection between the wellbeing strategy and the everyday experience of employees. Only then can mindset and behaviour change become possible and, most importantly, sustainable.  Employees feel more purposeful and can thrive; and in turn the business becomes more productive. And in that sense, wellbeing has become a genuine change-related issue. In the past it’s has been siloed inside Occupational Health or HR and not recognised as the hugely cross-cutting issue that it is; that’s an important shift.

Making it personal

Ben Moss: Well yes, and that essentially means embedding wellbeing in the values and culture of the organisation – making it part of ‘how we do business’. I think for some employers it’s already part of working life, but for others that is a very long (but important) journey upon which to embark. So Cary, do you think it’s appropriate for all organisations to try to make wellbeing cultural?

Cary Cooper: I do, although I don’t say that in any prescriptive sense. If there’s one thing I know after 50 years of working with organisations in this area, it’s that they are all unique (structurally, culturally, financially) and all start in a different place when it comes to getting wellbeing right. 

Ben Moss: And by extension they each have a workforce which is uniquely constituted – obviously, some businesses are based in one office, some in several (or many) locations in one country, while others are fully globalised. Some have many levels and job roles, while others are flat and homogenous. What that means is that there are many different versions of what health and wellbeing looks like out there—so ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches from employers are unlikely to be successful. They probably never were.

Cary Cooper: So you’re saying that strategies and programmes need to be customised?

Ben Moss: Essentially, yes. This year I’ve been seeing businesses have lots of success when they recognise that mindset and behaviour change happens much more readily if you speak the language of the specific employee. Why would the same messages work with both senior leaders and factory workers when they define wellbeing differently and have very distinct day-to-day experiences that make up their working lives? Why would a 50-year-old have the same definition of wellbeing and fulfilment as a 20-year-old? This shift in practitioner perspective tells me that 2017 is time to get rid of the sheep-dip mentality that’s characterised things like engagement surveys and resilience training to-date.

Cary Cooper: Sounds fine in principle, but that could be tricky to achieve in practice, right?

Ben Moss: Sure, it’s no mean feat—but I think that’s where a ‘true strategy’ comes in. Tailoring your messages on an unplanned and ad hoc basis would, indeed, be very difficult and time consuming. But if you’ve undertaken a strategy design process wherein you’ve segmented the workforce and your stakeholders properly, then identified the behaviours you need from each group the whole thing becomes much easier. You’re involving the internal Comms and engagement team, as well as HR and Change personnel, so it’s very much a multi-disciplinary approach. 

Cary Cooper: So you’re treating wellbeing like any other global, strategic issue. That’s the way it needs to go. Ultimately, there are big prizes at stake for businesses here—for example, this is also about winning and retaining talent. People are very mobile now and younger generations demand flexibility. Not in the sense of the flexible working schemes of the early 2000s, but real flexibility where work and life is much more integrated.

Ben Moss: Yes, and actually that’s not just millennials—information saturation, work overload and tech are all driving a movement away from the notion of Work-Life Balance and towards Work-Life Integration. As you know, at Good Day At Work we’ve been doing research on that idea this year—it’s a definite trend and one that I expect to continue to develop in 2017 as tech and its usage grow even further.

Making it digital

Cary Cooper: Picking up what you said about tech—this is something I’ve been talking a lot about this year. Tech can obviously help with the whole task of making wellbeing cultural, whether it’s measuring wellbeing (apps, wearables etc..) and dashboarding data, tailoring messages to individual employees or enabling remote working. However, the challenge for many organisations won’t be about adoption, but instead the education and cultural change to enable employees to use these tools with confidence, assurance of security and ease of use.

Ben Moss: So, using the tech for the right purpose and outcomes, in the right way?

Cary Cooper: Exactly, for example using Skype to build high quality relationships and connections—breaking down geographical and cultural barriers. Rather than using it to check how much time employees are spending working online! 

Making it all work together

Ben Moss: I think that highlights the role trust plays in any wellbeing strategy. So you need an awareness of where the business and its employees are at with values-based issues like trust before you set out on this journey, otherwise the whole thing risks being a vehicle for perpetuating existing cultural problems.

Cary Cooper: Sure, it’s about evolving a culture of mutual trust: Work 2.0. But that’s why some organisations see embarking on the wellbeing strategy as risky; like opening Pandora’s Box! It’s why they’ve historically avoided it in favour of lots of, often uncoordinated, activity. But they shouldn’t worry—there are now proven approaches to designing and implementing these things that remove the main risks. And anyway, since when was anything worth achieving easy?!

Ben Moss: I guess in my mind this comes down to the need for us to find ways to ‘mature’ the psychological contract between employer and employee. That’s certainly about taking account of changing demands (including new and emergent ways of working; like the gig economy), but I also think there’s something here about personal responsibility. So I’m very much hoping that while businesses are getting serious about providing the right environment for their staff, 2017 will see a rise in the levels of personal responsibility employees are willing and able to take when it comes to their own health and wellbeing. 

Cary Cooper: Yes, I think I’d probably agree with that—if, and only if, employers provide leadership, support and create the right environments do they earn the right to ask their employees to take more responsibility for their health. In so doing, they are starting the process of renegotiating the psychological contract. 

Ben Moss: Sure, but remember it’s two-way: because as we said earlier millennials and other groups (by way of their implicit and explicit demands) are also shifting the relationship between employee and employer… so workers also have agency in this debate. For example, despite the insecurities many people are embracing the gig economy because they want to manage their own time and be able to work whenever and wherever they want. I think this means we’ll see the best businesses aligning their own strategic and cultural goals with those of key groups in their workforce. 

Cary Cooper: Yes, it makes sense to try to see the trends early and work with the tide of behavioural and cultural change wherever possible. There’s nothing wrong with being opportunistic with your wellbeing strategy. And actually, that flexibility is also important when it comes to being able to deal with things that happen in the wider world—like Brexit and the US election result—both of which will undoubtedly have implications for UK businesses and their employees. 

Ben Moss: Yes, that’s about how we deal with uncertainty and, in turn, how that affects wellbeing. How we deal with it as employees and also as whole organisations.

Cary Cooper: Can you delve into that a bit more?

Ben Moss:  Well, when these big events happen, like Brexit, there’s an individual emotional reaction, but beyond that we come together to form a society. Businesses need to be able to handle not knowing what comes next and the inherent instability that creates.  That encompasses societal, business and personal responsibilities and skills, but also mindset. Because if we all think we can control everything (as many of us do) we’ll be sorely disappointed. I think there’s room for a bit more humility and kindness in what is undoubtedly a turbulent world—so taking control actually starts with giving some up! 

Cary Cooper: I agree with that—again, it highlights the strong link back to the values that underpin your wellbeing strategy. If they are solid and positive, then they stand you and your employees in good stead when bad things happen or uncertainty is in the air. They inspire confidence and stability in leaders and colleagues alike—confidence that if we work together and ‘do the right thing’ we’ll get through this. Wellbeing strategies need these ‘universal’, at their heart, they are very grounding.

Ben Moss: I see the point you’re making about ‘universals’. Wellbeing as a corporate enterprise or activity has exploded in the last few years and as part of that process I think it’s become quite unhelpfully generic in places; ‘we just need to do wellbeing’. At the same time, there are lots of different definitions and ideas of how you make it work inside organisations, so whilst feeling healthy is something everyone wants and is therefore a universal, I think there’s risk of it losing its power inside businesses because of intervention overload or everything becoming ‘programised’.  Just like engagement did… 

Cary Cooper: There’s no doubt universals are important—global companies I talk to fix on a couple of them to anchor their global strategy and then allow local, or ‘glocal’, freedom. But those universals need to really be universal—things that no one would say is bad thing. There’s no room for woolly nice-to-haves here!

Ben Moss: Yes—as an example, this year we’ve seen the benefits of re-energising clients’ efforts around wellbeing by working with the idea of creating more Good Days At Work. This is about providing a clear and simple goal, that is undeniably and equally compelling for both the employee and the employer. It’s accessible at all levels, there’s room for different definitions of what makes a good day and it’s strongly values based—so the buy-in was excellent, largely because there was no reason not to buy in! 

Cary Cooper: Yes, that works. I’ve also seen things like ‘health age’ used successfully in that context. The important thing is that it’s meaningful to everyone and relevant to the culture that you want to create.  It needs to connect people too—2016 seems to me to have been characterised by divisions and social disconnectedness. I desperately hope that 2017 is more positive and therefore about the opposite. People coming together politically, socially and at work to what we do best—make great things happen. 

Ben Moss: I’ll second that Cary! I’d like to think 2017 will be the year of the wellbeing conversation—the year when businesses and employees finally feel it’s ok, desirable even, to have conversations about how we feel, physically and emotionally.

Cary Cooper: Yes, and it’s about time!

 

Continue the conversation with Ben and Sir Cary this March at the Good Day At Work Conversation 2017.

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Guest Sunday, 19 February 2017

Cary CooperGood Day at Work™

The new wellbeing resources hub founded by @profcarycooper and Roberston Cooper. Join for FREE and access blogs, videos, downloads, podcasts and more.

Ben MossBen on Twitter

MD of Cary Cooper's business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper - for all things wellbeing, engagement and resilience at work.

Cary CooperCary on Twitter

Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School.

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