The stakes in combating emotional wellbeing could not be higher. Being able to participate in human interactions does not just affect someone in the workplace, but is the bedrock of how someone integrates into society. But dealing with the complex, personal, and invisible forces can be a drain on energy, and impact productivity at work.
Employers are beginning to realise that individual personalities, life stories, and circumstances, whether good or poor, are an important part of someone’s emotional wellbeing. These can be either a major force for good in a company, or a drain on energy, impacting productivity. Employees do not leave those traits and feelings at the door when they start their daily work – and nor should they.
So what can employers do to make the workplace somewhere that creates an emotional space that is both safe and rewarding, and helps employees bring the best version of themselves to work?
For businesses across the globe, emotional wellbeing is a pertinent issue. The World Health Organisation claims a negative working environment leading to poor emotional wellbeing ‘can lead to physical and mental health problems’, and it estimates that as much as 13% of all sickness absence days are connected to underlying mental health conditions.
With nearly 15% of people experiencing mental health problems in the workplace at any one time, at a practical level the issue is hard to ignore – but at a business level it intensifies. The WHO calculates that poor emotional health costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion every year in lost productivity.
of all sickness absence days are connected to underlying mental health conditions
But poor emotional health does not only pose a threat to businesses, it is also an opportunity. So much so that employers are committing to helping their workforces, with 88% of businesses offering some kind of support for the emotional wellbeing of their staff. Whether their investments are enough and are best placed depends on whether it is part of a genuine commitment to an inclusive wellbeing strategy, rather than a tick box exercise. How many approaches were agile enough, for example, to pass the stress-test of COVID-19 remains to be seen.
The course of a career can span over 50 years – and with home and work life becoming increasingly blurred, it is important that both managers and individuals are able to proactively manage all aspects of wellbeing. Employers may already recognise changing physical needs as employees age, for example in lighting or work spaces, and they may already offer benefits that suit different age segments. To support emotional wellbeing, employers and employees need to better understand the invisible forces shaping emotional health, as well as having the support in place to combat any negative effects.
The emotional vortex
In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behaviour. Some people have naturally low self-esteem, employees can find their confidence shaken when they start a new role, and introverts can find nurturing relationships with colleagues draining. Employees who feel they cannot be their authentic self at work because the culture does not embrace diversity may feel very disconnected from their colleagues. These factors can have a negative effect on whether someone feels they belong in their environment, which can lead to a feeling of isolation, possibly culminating in depression.
But it is also accepted that the factors contributing to this depression are no longer limited directly to home and work life. Socio-economic threats such as an ageing population and the ability to create personal financial stability in the long-term can create real unease, while neo-protectionist policies are having real impacts on the perceived future.
This can be especially worrying for people who have previously been affected by job losses or long periods of unemployment, and have experienced the effects.
Fear of the unexpected is not without merit. Confidence in job security was already in decline before the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, which produced estimates of 25 million job losses globally and has now risen to 140 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. The rapid spread of the global pandemic and the social, emotional, and economic impact, and the swift measures that employers have taken in reaction will have a lasting impact on how employers and employees see the future of work. Putting emotional wellbeing at the heart of future wellbeing strategies, to create resilience against future challenges of this nature, should be high on the agenda for businesses.
Bas van der Tuyn, Propositions & Business Development Manager at Aon, explains how the growing uncertainty of the world is contributing to poor emotional wellbeing:
“A perfect storm has taken shape — a combination of volatility and complexity that is difficult for people to navigate. With the loss of control people feel comes ambiguity, and the world can become overwhelming. This can be a source of enormous stress.”
Bas van der Tuyn, Propositions & Business Development Manager at Aon
However, while the average workplace historically approached wellbeing with a reactive, defensive mindset, a more progressive organisation was emerging pre-COVID-19 – one that understands these broader issues and takes an active stance alongside employees. The ambition for these organisations is to create a place where people can go to feel good about themselves, and make steps forward not just at work, but across their whole lives. Going forward, this will be at the heart of people strategies for all successful businesses.
Bas believes that these companies are key in tackling this wellness dynamic, and it is these organisations who will prosper through their people strategies:
‘Companies can be a safe haven – a beacon in the storm – where people can connect to get through difficult times.’
The management care gap
While businesses may be well-intentioned, in practice combating these outside threats to wellbeing remains a challenge. HR directors, whose decisions can impact lives, have a huge responsibility to understand simultaneously what the right workplace wellbeing support looks like, as well as ensuring their people are able to implement the strategies effectively.
For line managers, only 10% of whom may be trained or equipped with the right knowledge to understand the complexity of the issues at hand, this also poses a challenge on a day-to-day basis. While pressure remains to continue to meet performance targets for example, they are increasingly being asked to play their part in creating a positive emotional environment.
How to nurture a positive relationship between the employee and workplace is not inherently understood. It can vary based on industry, as well as the type of workforce, and can sometimes appear to be at odds with broader business objectives – especially if time is not allocated to wellbeing practices – so it is important to understand the help managers need in ensuring they are fulfilling their responsibilities.
Steven MacGregor, CEO at The Leadership Academy of Barcelona, explains that caring is not necessarily a skill that comes naturally:
‘Historically, so-called “soft skills” have not been seen as important in the managerial skills mix as technical skills, and there’s no functional expertise that allows managers to pursue this agenda. Because people have generally been promoted based on technical skills – not on their abilities to engender wellbeing in their workforces – emotional wellness is now being realised as a key lever in getting the most from your people.’
To make matters worse, managers are often overachievers who are not always good at managing their own wellness, let alone others’. Highly engaged people who put work before everything else are suffering burn out more often than not, through either focusing on the wrong things, or failing to see there was another way of reaching their goals. Ensuring this type of personality approaches people management in a human way is a key part of the challenge.
As Steven explains, human interactions need to feel real, and are not part of a top-down corporate initiative with the company in the foreground:
“The only real qualifier seems to be ‘are you a people person?’ If you are genuinely curious about your staff, and check in on them, rather than check up on them, you will be able to have the rich one-to-one interactions that people need. People are smart, and will see through your advances if they’re not for the right reasons.”
Steven MacGregor, CEO at The Leadership Academy of Barcelona
Getting the fundamentals in place
Despite the challenges, line managers are in a prime position to get to know their employees very well. At a practical level, there are ways of helping managers start down this path in showing them what to look out for in their workforces. Employees going through difficult emotional periods can display uncharacteristic personality changes such as tiredness or poor timekeeping. There are also sometimes physical clues, such as complaints from pain caused by muscle tension from stress.
Sudden changes in circumstances can be more obvious and more straightforward to provision for. Bereavement for example, will require time away from the workplace, as well as flexibility and compassion, not to mention help through the harsh practicalities of dealing with a death.
Wellbeing initiatives are easier to implement in close-knit teams or organisations where it is easier to find out what benefits people are looking for, but in larger organisations it can be more difficult. With a larger workforce it is also more difficult to know exactly what provisions employees will most benefit from, and some organisations find communicating what the benefits are to be a challenge too.
But telling people what is available is the crucial first step in letting people access the provisions, and by opening the conversation you can change the dynamic, reducing the pressure on your managers to take the initiative.
Steven explains that as long as you are acting genuinely, with employees’ best interests at heart, they will appreciate your efforts:
‘Emotions are very personal, so there is no one approach to wellbeing benefits. But if your employees see that you are sending information because you’re trying to help them they will be receptive. Models of what you think will help your workforce based on the type of work they do, or the feedback you get most are a good way to get going. This will show them that you are trying, and give people the confidence you want to help. People will give you more information about what they need from there. Then you’re on the path to better wellbeing.’
Culture, culture, culture
Although providing the right tools to ensure positive wellbeing is crucial, it is important to understand the influence of the working environment and everyone in it. How employees perceive their workplace is largely defined by the people around them and behaviours they exhibit collectively. This in itself can shape attitudes towards themselves, the employer, and directly affect how they behave.
Making sure your efforts are being received properly is not only down to how they are delivered by management, but by how they are spoken about, used, and embedded at home and at work. Creating a culture that allows this is crucial.
Culture is an oft misunderstood term. Businesses can claim to have a good culture, or have ambitions to grow a culture, but see this as a final destination, put in place and held together by well-defined initiatives. It can easily be forgotten that positive wellbeing is the sum of positive personal and human experiences, not wellbeing platform sign-up rates.
In reality, culture is the end product of your efforts, the manifestation of a single unified voice that all employees live and breathe, and cultivates positive feelings. It is how people act, what they say, and what they believe privately. Get this right, and your business will elevate above others.
A culture that does this successfully is rooted in authenticity and empathy. The ability to empathise through personal experiences, shared experiences, and the openness to communicate them more widely can be the platform for a transparent, interconnected workforce.
To create an empathetic culture on which wellbeing can grow, there are three foundations to put in place:
- Self-aware leaders who understand others, show their vulnerabilities, and lead the conversation by example are crucial. Spreading the message that the issues at hand are being fought on all fronts, that new ideas are welcome, and that work is a safe space where people can talk openly in a normal, human way.
- Clear policies and values allow businesses to communicate how the company thinks and will approach emotional wellbeing with clarity and confidence. Winning hearts before you win minds will ensure your message is heard with optimism.
- Opening the conversation is the first step, but having the conversation, and keeping the conversation going is a different ball-game. Making time to talk about the issues in a flexible but regular way, ensuring employees use the available provisions and reinforce the outcomes through feedback openly, and dedicating time to developing employees in ways that benefit them are all ways of embedding best practice.
The business of the future is here
Creating a workplace that is safe as well as rewarding is no mean feat. It involves all people in a workforce having the knowledge, tools, and confidence to look after their own emotional wellbeing and mental health, as well as those around them. And while these are complicated areas that require a committed business effort, there is no time to lose.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has shaken up and tested workplace dynamics in unprecedented ways at an unprecedented scale. Steven MacGregor explains how organisations have had to drastically speed up their workplace innovation to ensure they continued to get the most from their workforce:
‘Organisations who have relied on orthodoxy in their working practices, or have previously taken months or even years to make changes, have had to make changes overnight. What they found was that the pain of this was short-term, but those human connections and empathy between colleagues started to form right away, and for long-term benefit.’
There are things that can be done to bridge the gap between employer and employee to create a real emotional bond between the two. Regardless of where employers start, they need to start immediately. A proactive approach will not only ensure employees are getting what they need faster, but that the business transforms now, not at an unspecified point in the future.
Bas van der Tuyn believes organisations who do not take a proactive approach to emotional wellbeing will become stuck in their markets:
‘If companies want to be able to move forward, they need to have a vital and productive workforce who are able to handle the elements. Employers need to create a strong, unified message that they want to help their employees on an individual level, but also one that addresses that they understand the complexity of the world they inhabit. Economic and more existential threats exist for companies and their employees alike – so having a strategy to deal with the multitude of difficulties in unison is paramount.’
Creating a partnership between employers and employees forms the basis of a lasting, fruitful relationship, as well as being the first line of defence in pre-empting emotional distress. But where from there?
The ideal scenario for both parties is a wellbeing intervention solution that is responsive to the unique needs of the individual. Bas outlines how Aon can help in creating a focused and effective intervention and support strategy:
“Aon’s Assessment Solutions can identify the things that are important to your people — so you can build informed people strategies. Our individualised testing gives analysis that reveals employee needs that are based in real problems, creating a platform for intervention, heading off employee difficulties before they arise, allowing businesses to maximise engagement.”
The knock-on effects of supporting a workforce emotionally cannot be understated. From the ability to maintain good relationships, improved communication and teamwork, to creating purpose for individuals, the benefits for organisations of providing real emotional support all contribute towards a workforce that is more resilient and motivated towards organisational goals.
The outcomes are easy to translate. Improved employee productivity, higher retention rates, reduced absence levels, and better interpersonal working all delivered through a happier, healthier, and stronger workforce.