Workplace wellbeing is more than just free bananas

by Helen Fitzhugh

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘workplace wellbeing’? If you automatically think of fruit baskets, free massages and playful Silicon Valley office space, you are not alone.

I know, because I recently spent time listening to the ambitions and fears of business leaders on workplace wellbeing for a study funded by the National Productivity Investment Fund and the ESRC.

Quirky examples of employee perks can make managers wonder whether it is possible to ‘go too far’ in indulging employees when it comes to promoting employee wellbeing. This is a shame, because research and reviews by the work and learning team at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing suggest that genuine attempts to promote workplace wellbeing are actually far more about doing the basics well: good communication, management and job design. These are not ‘nice to have’ extras, but the fundamental conditions for productive work.

My project involved taking this message out to local factories and offices and listening to the response.

Organisations can improve employee wellbeing in a range of ways – from effective signposting and support for people struggling with physical, mental or other difficulties, to fostering good relationships, to training managers and designing quality jobs.

High-quality work involves job security, reasonable demands, a clear role, varied tasks and the opportunity to use your skills and develop new ones. Relationships are also central to experiences at work. Think of how the way your co-workers and managers treat you can either make or break your working day.

As well as the direct individual benefits, employee wellbeing has been linked to higher productivity, through improvements in performance, reductions in absence and presenteeism costs, and improvements in creativity.

If a piece of machinery or a new patented process promised all those improvements, it would be a sell-out success. Yet managers see barriers to working on wellbeing – especially if it involves making many small incremental actions, rather than purchasing a product or service. I wanted to understand these barriers and try to learn from businesses that were overcoming them.

I identified five key challenges from my discussions with managers on how to promote employee wellbeing:

employee wellbeing

For the organisations who were doing little on wellbeing, the main challenge seemed to be finding and investing the time required to think clearly about this issue.

Managers admitted looking for easy-to-deliver options, rather than activities they believed would make the most difference.

In contrast, the organisations who were doing a lot on the basics of employee wellbeing – particularly around training managers and fostering good communication – focused on the importance of their organisational values in guiding their use of time and focus. Instead of focusing on lack of time, they started from ‘what does our organisation value?’ and allocated time on that basis.

Perhaps one of the most convincing reasons why some organisations find tackling employee wellbeing challenging is that being genuinely interested in the employee experience is a transformative process. It requires changes in culture and management style, sustained over time. Realising this and believing it to be important could be the key difference between an organisation that embraces employee wellbeing and reaps the performance improvements and one that does not.

Workplace wellbeing relies on the fundamentals of communication, relationship-building and valuing people.

Human interaction is messy and relationships can be hard – whether between friends, partners, co-workers or a business and its employees. The organisations that are making progress on employee wellbeing recognise this complexity. They work incrementally and systematically on training managers and providing high-quality conditions and opportunities that value people and their contributions. Yet workplace wellbeing is not just down to pioneering businesses. Job quality depends on everything from national policy on workers’ rights and conditions, down to the attitude of each supervisor on the shop floor.

So, let’s look beyond free bananas and work systematically on making our workplaces better for all.

helen fitzhugh 150Dr Helen Fitzhugh is a social researcher with a long-standing interest in why, how, and how successfully, different organisations work to create positive social change. She is currently working on employee wellbeing in policing via a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between UEA and the College of Policing. 

This article is based on work she carried out as a Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia (UEA). You can read more about the project and download a two-page summary for businesses on the UEA website.

This blog is based on the article ‘Beyond free bananas’ which originally appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Society Now.

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