Making Well Being a Workplace Reality

This item appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 22 April 2021 in the Business & Money section.

We now know that telling someone who is struggling or having a hard time to "harden up" doesn’t help them.

However, in the workplace it can be difficult to know  what else you can do. In her last Connections column, Sarah Cross noted many organisations are still in the dark about the importance of a positive workplace culture and how to execute it.

She likened it to the evolution of health and safety, which is now seen as best practice to have implemented and integrated into all organisational processes.

The cynics among us will perhaps say that is because of recent tougher laws. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), organisations have a primary duty of care to provide a work environment that is without risk to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Directors and top managers can be held personally liable. To date, we have typically focused on reducing the risk of physical harm. However HSWA defines health as being both physical and mental.

You must have effective systems for protecting worker health, both physical and mental, from work-related factors.

To promote general health aligns to this legal emphasis, encompassing specific topics such as bullying and discrimination through to general wellbeing.

Having a positive workplace culture, where the wellbeing of staff is promoted and protected, is not only a legal obligation. It also improves your bottom line by enhancing productivity and reducing absenteeism.

A survey of New Zealand enterprises as part of the 2019 Southern Cross Health Society/ Business New Zealand Workplace Wellness Report found that in 2018, New Zealand lost 7.4million working days and $1.79billion due to worker absences.

This was up from 6.6million working days and $1.151billion of absences in 2016. This report is produced every two years so presumably these figures will have increased again due to the impact of Covid-19.

Essentially, a healthy workplace puts the health and wellbeing of its people at the centre of everything it does.

Understand the underlying drivers

Before you can manage a risk, you need to understand what causes it. People’s health and wellbeing is shaped by social, economic and environmental factors, including:

How businesses work and lead

The work spaces, environment and facilities provided

Individual lifestyle factors

Managing the risks

Ideally you should always try to eliminate the risk but where that is not possible, you need to consider how to minimise it. Select the most effective controls that are proportionate to the risk and appropriate to your organisation.

Wellbeing also involves a level of self-responsibility. An individual’s commitment to it will vary greatly, so it is wise to offer a broad range of wellbeing opportunities to increase their participation.

Obviously, all of these things cannot be implemented overnight, so ask your team what would make the greatest difference to them. Don’t just presume you know.

Get to know your staff as people, not just employees showing a genuine interest shows you care. They are more likely to take responsibility and make good decisions when they know you are making an effort and they have been involved in the conversation.

Don’t forget your leaders

Organisations may have wellbeing measures in place for staff, but not always for their business leaders. Leaders often, by their nature, are looking out for others but not for themselves.

They can hesitate to put their own wellbeing into either strategic planning documents or management conversations with their board. This is not to say that boards are not supportive — they are there when things get tough, but not often in a proactive or forward-thinking manner.

The risk is that unless you have a high-functioning and well leader, your organisation will not be as effective as it could or should be. On top of what you have in place for your staff, consider how to help leaders with their wellbeing.

An open honest and supportive relationship with the board chairperson is helpful although it is beneficial to have a safety net of an independent network or mentor for leaders to tap into.

Sometimes issues around CEO performance and tensions between the roles of governance and management can cloud a chairperson/leader relationship. Leaders can often be a lonely role in an organisation so the chance to share and problem-solve with others in similar positions is crucial.

For leaders in smaller businesses, getting time away from work is a real barrier so it needs to be prioritised in their diaries.

So what of the above recommendations are you going to take up? You could make a bold move, like starting the next half of 2021 with a retreat focused on team-building and connection.

This discussion might seem new age and fluffy, but the research clearly shows that happy people are more productive people. High stress levels cause sickness, which costs money that could be better utilised elsewhere.

High staff turnover is a killer of momentum.

And then there are legal obligations under the HSWA to follow. It is in your best interests to do more than to expect your people to simply "harden up". Invest in the wellbeing of your team, your leaders — and yourself.

Of your team:

Of your leaders: