Workplace Wellness – Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Workplace Wellness – Whose responsibility is it anyway?
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What are we doing about Workplace Wellness?

With the Prime Minister today announcing greater support for the ‘burning injustice of mental health’ and pledging to do so much more to both identify and support the 1 in 4 people that suffer from Mental Health problems in the UK; I thought it prudent to share my own thoughts on workplace wellness.

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on mental health in the workplace for some time and although I’m no industry expert, this is a piece that comes from my own experience and from the heart. With the next promise of transforming attitudes towards mental health, and having heard the horror stories about mistreatment of fellow sufferers in the workplace, I wondered what your experiences are? If you’re an employer, what does your organisation do to support your people?

Changing the way we work

As a company, Marjolo is obsessed with customer design and helping people to transform their organisations for the better. We strive to change working practices, enhance the ways things operate and most importantly, empower people as decision makers and be at the heart of change. But on reflection, is that really enough to make people ‘happy’ and ensure that the workplace contributes to good mental health? Is it all just about improving the efficiency of our processes and people to create a better working environment?

For as far back as I can remember, and bearing in mind I come from an old fashioned Northern English background (where emotions didn’t exist), I was always told to make sure that I did not take my personal problems to work, something that I haven’t always been able to do. Now, keeping the separation between your professional and personal life has its advantages, be it the nature of some of our relationships, getting the job done and quite often having something to distract you from the problems at home for 7-9 hours every day.

But what happens when that distraction no longer works and your personal affairs, stresses or emotions creep into the workplace? What happens when the distraction of the clickity click of your keyboard no longer drowns out the sound of someone noisily scoffing their crisps across the desk and makes you want to use your stapler as an offensive weapon? What about when hearing about yet another person’s tale of ‘I’ve had the most wonderful holiday’ makes you feel that you want to cut yourself off from humanity and retreat under the coffee table for a week?

What about when your medication is making you queasy, unsteady or causing you to struggle with your concentration? What if you feel so self-conscious that you start to have an anxiety attack at your desk? And what about when you feel that you just cannot take it anymore and someone asks ‘are you ok?’, and you look up at them and with no other choice, you steel yourself because you have to be a professional and say that your most loathsome phrase:

‘I’m fine.’

Every one of those examples was something that I, and I’d imagine many others have been through, and for me, it was a never-ending cycle that continued until I said:

‘Do you know what? No, I’m not ok’.

Standing up

For me that was an incredibly brave thing to do. There will be some out there that would not agree, they might even say that I’m weak. For those people, please do rest assured that that despite the cataclysmic personal changes and professional stresses in my life that all led to my breakdown, I still got the job done and no-one knew a damn thing about any of it. The very fact that people with mental health issues, be them temporary or long term, feel the need to defend themselves is perhaps precisely why the Prime Minister is today looking to improve support in the workplace.

I was lucky, I had access to professional support services through my employer that I was able to utilise, an understanding management tier, and I sought out my own ways of coping too. Be it working from home, changing my hours so that I could avoid certain stresses and perhaps most importantly, allowing me to manage my workload in the way that allowed me to help myself. But that could never have happened without employer support.

For me, I’ve always found comfort in sport, for others it’s music, literature or solace. But for me pushing myself to the point physically whereby I can hardly stand and even my over-active brain needs to shut down is what really works. I was fortunate to find a local Karate class that was held at lunchtimes, twice a week, and for me it was a revelation. The physical and mental benefits of martial arts is not something that I’m going to discuss here, but I instead want to extol the freedom of choice in the workplace. Being able to choose to have my lunchbreak somewhere other than at my desk, or to decline attendance of that lunchtime meeting which some inconsiderate idiot had set up because I had somewhere else I needed to be was great. Exercising your right to manage your own time is simply wonderful.

Over the years I’ve seen many people book out their calendars for lunch, but for me it was never the same, nor did it work, and simply heading out for a sandwich or going out for a walk just didn’t cut it. Being able to make the conscious choice that I was able to do something that I enjoyed, in between a gruelling workload was something that really stabilised me. There were a few snide comments of course, but you can never win over everyone and despite Mrs May’s ambitions, people will always have something negative to say about someone’s actions, especially when it’s for themselves and their own wellbeing. You can be seen as selfish, not pulling your weight or an inactive member of a team; that is of course utter, utter nonsense and that is where attitudes need to change.

I’m perhaps running off point a little here, but how many times have you or someone you know said the phrase:

‘I simply don’t have the time, I haven’t even eaten lunch!’

False Flexibility

People have talked for years about the modern plight of being overworked and how modern technology means that we are never allowed to stop. But let’s be real here, that isn’t technology’s fault, mobile working helps so many people be flexible in their day, it is the people that make the decision to do that work and the employers that enable the behaviour. In a 24 hour global market, ‘working 9 to 5’ rarely exists, but that doesn’t mean that you should work 20 hours a day instead – unless of course you want to, but I’d obviously advise against that.

So how as an employer do you keep your staff happy and deliver workplace wellness? You might perhaps say:

‘Well I pay out bonuses and incentives and offer an extensive pat on the back recognition system to keep my staff motivated.’

Now I am a firm believer in recognition being a big part in being happy in the workplace, but is this really enough? I’ve read many articles recently about why the current generation is so unhappy, be it through the falsities that we witness in social media, to Simon Cowell crushing your dreams of being a popstar, right through to somebody’s parents promising little Timmy that he’d be able to run Google without ever having to try at anything. But wellness in the workplace is something felt by every generation, each one with their own stories of prejudice and injustice and as a result, there is no one size fits all approach and we all need different support to be able to do our best. Employers can hold the key to this if you transform your business around the needs of your most important asset, yes you’ve guessed it, your people.

In a previous role I was amazed at just how difficult it was to get something as such as workplace wellness off the ground. Be it making people aware of the existing support services available to them, introducing new ideas, and most frustratingly, just getting people to be interested. I think there’s something to be said about the difference between people who are unhappy in the workplace, and those people who are genuinely unhappy. Of course we all enjoy a good moan about our role from time to time, but very rarely are our complaints in this sense reviewed and dealt with. In a lot of places, the genuinely unhappy people, who are now being labelled as high functioning depressives or someone suffering with hidden anxiety, are likely not even listened to at all and are simply left to get on with it – hence the ‘functioning’ label.

Challenging the Stigma

I do believe that much of this goes back to the stigma and to the idea that people who suffer, don’t want to speak out for fear of being judged and not supported. This is perhaps backed up by some of the statistics coming out from the Prime Minister’s message about the people who have been turned away for support and care which quite frankly are nothing short of shocking. So why should the workplace be any different? A good phrase used by an old manager of mine for when something went wrong was:

‘It doesn’t really matter, nobody died.’

That’s very true, but the sad thing is that mental health issues are killing people through either suicide or losing themselves or the people they care about bit by bit. With a reported 8 million people in the UK suffering from some form of mental health issue, chances are that someone you know be it your partner, friend, parent, child, colleague, manager or employee is suffering and would really value your support.

There’s been a lot of steps taken lately to improve office spaces to support people in more creative ways and instil workplace wellness, be it through the installation of slides down to the canteen (which does sound incredible), team building exercises, Thought Pods, baristas on site with fresh coffee at the ready or even the good old unlimited supply of fruit and biscuits. But is that what people really need? Is that just abiding to a new trend, or to simply cover up the cracks in your workforce’s happiness with lots of bright invigorating colours? I’ve read a lot recently that to make yourself more happy, you should become more Danish and practice ‘hygge’. This could be by wearing more black, eating porridge, lighting candles, cycling or finishing work at 4. Perhaps that is the next big thing to be found in offices in the future, an employee handbook with a guide to ‘Being more Hygge’.

Your responsibility

Ultimately, I think every employer has to ask themselves whether they would be happy to work in the environment that they’ve created. If they would, then that’s great, but you must remember that not everyone who works for you is exactly like you. The fact is that we need to do more to support people to be themselves in the workplace as opposed to being a corporate robot. I’m not suggesting that we all come in to work as our weekend personas, but given the right environment and support people can really flourish and deliver real growth in your business. This doesn’t just mean an office space with clean modern furnishings, but also promoting a culture where you are able to take 90 minutes for lunch to do a class without then having to rush back with a sandwich in one hand and a phone in the other makes all the difference. If your working culture allows people to know that you can make up the time up by coming in early the next morning because it works for them then people are more likely to feel content, but of course you need to empower them and give them responsibilities to demonstrate how good of a job they can do with these benefits.

But it doesn’t stop there, these are not new ideas yet they never seem to have really been given the opportunity to develop. Are we so eager to constantly change our approach to the workplace that working parents still struggle to work around the school run and are unable to work in the evenings or locally to make themselves more efficient? As someone once told me, there is no such thing as a work-life balance, there’s just life. So perhaps that is what we need to do as employers is offer our people the chance to choose how they live it.

Things are never that simple with mental health and there really does need to be long term support in place for this through existing care routes and new support methods. That can only ever come about through tackling the stigmatism that surrounds it and that only comes with offering support and education to both employees and their employers. I’m sure that many people will appreciate the commitment the Prime Minister is making and I desperately hope that this raises the profile of this very serious issue.

If you are suffering, be it in the short or long term, then always remember that you are not alone and many of us feel exactly the same. There are of course organisations who can help and I highly recommend checking out the websites of Mind, Clasp and Chasing the Stigma; all of which are great charities. If you’re an employer and you’d like to talk to us about helping to transform your business for the benefit of your customers and your people, then we would love to hear from you.

Matt Wilding


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