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Personalising mental health and wellbeing: HR’s biggest challenge yet?

Work and how it makes you feel. Health and wellbeing in all its forms. These are things I’ve been studying and talking publicly about for over 40 years now. And that’s because they matter.

Most of us spend 80% of our waking time at work during an average week… and all too often that extends to weekends too!

So how we feel at work, and perhaps more importantly, when we go home at night, makes a huge difference to both our overall health, happiness and the motivation to perform our jobs.

My University Spin-Off company, Robertson Cooper, recently looked at the benefits of having more good days at work – the research findings were conclusive:

And what we, as employees, want from work is changing too. Some of the world’s biggest employers, new technology, ‘smart’ buildings, the gig economy and the media have raised the bar in terms of what we expect from work.

So businesses are being asked to step up, sometimes by employees who want to play an active role in making change happen, sometimes by employees who don’t!

But either way it’s a tough ask: organisations very often have the right values and the will, but they don’t know where to start when their culture and people processes are not currently supportive of creating and maintaining a sustainably-well workforce.

Changing employee demands

We all want those things, right? But employers very often find releasing this potential inside the business challenging, never more so than now, when work is changing at such a rapid rate.

This is true across every sector and you will know the challenges that such change brings for you personally as an employee. With change, of course, comes added pressure.

The rise of personalisation

One of the biggest trends, and challenges, I see for employers is the idea of personalisation when it comes to work and wellbeing.

Technology, in particular, has enabled insights and experience to be personalised like never before – think smart meeting rooms where temperature and lighting can be pre-set to suit the inhabitants AND the task at hand; think apps that track everything from your exercise to your sleep and ‘learn’ about you so that you get the most appropriate support and advice; think digital GPs where you can get an online appointment with a real person in 5 minutes….

As I said, the bar has been raised and, with it, employee expectations!

The power of telling stories

Another important aspect of personalisation is the power of personal storytelling to change mindsets.

I can remember a time, not too long ago, when (almost) no one in a position of status or power would admit to, let alone talk openly about, having a mental health problem. Over the last 5 years, that has all changed.

From ‘The Royals’ through a range of stars from the worlds of sport (Freddie Flintoff, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps) and Entertainment (Kanye West, Adele, Beyoncé) and business people (CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, Antonio Horta Osario) role models are opening up and starting to talk about mental health and wellbeing.

In turn, and in line with a range of public campaigns (Heads Together, Movember, Time to Change), this is changing the tone of the conversation around mental health in our society – and by extension, in our workplaces. More than ever before, it feels ok to talk to your colleagues, and even your boss, about how you feel – good or bad. And that really is a positive change.

The risks of personalisation

There are risks inherent in all this change though, the speed it’s happening means that we don’t fully understand the impact of the (seemingly positive) enhancements we are making to working life.

So yes, flexibility, pace, connectivity and efficiency have all improved immeasurably, but work itself feels different. Better in some ways, worse in others. I think this raises some important questions, ones that are only just now starting to be addressed.

For example, is the ‘efficiency’ that flows from our new tech-driven, ‘always-on’ working style sustainable? Are the potential benefits worth the cost in terms of sleep problems, anxiety and potential long-term absence? They might be, but my point is we don’t know yet – and if they’re poorly managed the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.

Another question is how far we’re willing to go to have our experience personalised. Where is the line between constructive, helpful personalisation and an invasion of privacy? How should employers and service providers cater to the wide range of preferences that are likely to exist here? Witness the challenges Facebook and Instagram have faced in this respect over the last 12 months!

In my mind, there’s no doubt that the positives for mental health and wellbeing from digital technology outweigh the risks, but it would be naïve to suggest there are no risks. Ultimately, there are multiple responsibilities – as such service providers, employers and employees themselves are locked in an interdependent relationship whereby if one party drops the ball the risks rise.


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