If you see employee wellbeing as just another work benefit, like medical insurance or free gym membership, you’re not really getting it. While benefits are nice-to-have, true wellbeing only comes when it is ingrained in your culture.
Of all the awards and accolades we’ve won over the years, winning ‘Team of the Year’ at the 2023 Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards is the one that makes me proudest.
It is not just an acknowledgment of the fantastic work that our Head of Wellbeing Sarah Stead, our health and wellbeing coordinators, our 45 global Wellbeing Champions, two super champs, 17 mental health first aiders and many, many others do to support each other and our colleagues. It is recognition that wellbeing is a fundamental part of our culture. It is not an add-on.
The work identity
“Despite this centuries-old close link between self-identity and employment, the prevailing wisdom since the Industrial Revolution has been that work is purely transactional”
The question “what do you do?” is so routine that most people answer it on autopilot. Work identity is so much part of human culture that in many languages a lot of surnames are derived from our ancestors’ occupations. Cooper – barrel maker, Fletcher – arrow maker. My surname suggests I had ancestors who were guards or wardens of something-or-other. I like to think it was something or someone important or glamorous.
Despite this centuries-old close link between self-identity and employment, the prevailing wisdom since the Industrial Revolution has been that work is purely transactional – I work for you, you pay me money. If someone offers me more money or slightly better working conditions, off I go. Although this view is often challenged, it has frequently been championed by government, and it is still promoted by many in the economics community.
The problem with seeing the company–employee relationship as purely transactional should be immediately obvious: it implies we are all working sometimes half our waking lives to earn money to support the other half. It promotes the idea that work is a necessary evil, rather than a fulfilling part of our existence that, as a bonus, comes with a monetary reward.
What do we want from work?
“Around four out of five people who quit their job cite lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving”
An ISSP Research Group survey of nearly 50,000 employees in 38 countries revealed that only 16 per cent of employees rated “high income” as more important than having “an interesting job”. More than 60 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I would enjoy having a paid job even if I did not need the money.”
In The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, Leigh Branham explains that 89 per cent of managers believe employees quit for more money, but the reality is that only 12 per cent leave for higher pay. A carrot.com survey of 200,000 people reveals that around four out of five people who quit their job cite lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving.
How does any of this square with the economic argument that work is purely transactional?
“The companies that eventually understood the reasons for a good work–life balance are not surprisingly more likely to have happier employees”
While the transaction element remains important if people are to thrive in a society where it is necessary to have money to exchange for goods and services, there is still the search for meaning at work, of sharing the same values as your company, of belonging to a group of people who willingly support you if you stumble – these are increasingly important factors in why people choose and stick with companies.
They also contribute to why people enjoy work and find it fulfilling. The problems come when work becomes so dominant it overshadows the rest of your life (a poor work–life balance) and when it is allowed to become so all-encompassing that it has a negative effect on your wellbeing.
The phrase work–life balance first appeared in the 1980s. It was coined by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK as a call to employers to change inflexible working practices to enable women to both raise families and have meaningful careers.
It took far too long for most employers to take it seriously, but the companies that eventually understood the reasons for a good work–life balance are not surprisingly more likely to have happier employees.
Burnout and fatigue
“Burnout can cause fatigue, mood swings, irritability and a decrease in work performance”
Nevertheless, far too few companies are taking employee wellbeing seriously. According to Gallup, only 23 per cent of employees around the world feel engaged in their work, while a similar number (18 per cent) claim to be actively disengaged.
The coming of the pandemic, which took hold in 2020, hid the fact that in 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised ‘work burnout’ as an occupational hazard. While not a medical condition, the WHO calls it a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
Burnout can cause fatigue, mood swings, irritability and a decrease in work performance. It not only affects people’s wellbeing, but it can have a big effect on staff retention. In the USA alone, the Harvard Business Review estimates a loss to the economy of $125–190 billion from burnout each year.
Then the pandemic came. Flexible working became mandatory during lockdown and many people took stock of their careers. When some companies began to return to pre-pandemic work practices, it precipitated what became known as the Great Resignation (or Great Attrition). Again, according to McKinsey, the most important factors behind the mass walkout are social and psychological, including not feeling valued by their organisation or manager, or not having a sense of belonging at work.
“Rather than creating a culture that is centred on wellbeing, some employers think only in terms of adding more benefits, which they assume will boost staff retention and productivity”
I still talk to employers who think they get this, but don’t. They think of psychological issues in transactional terms, so that rather than creating a culture that is centred on wellbeing, they think only in terms of adding more benefits, which they assume will boost staff retention and productivity.
Now, of course, I’m all for benefits. Like many firms, we offer significant benefits – enhanced sick pay, private healthcare, access to independent advice, wellbeing days off, volunteer days, career breaks, flexi-working and much, much more.
But while these of course benefit both employees and the company, they don’t in themselves address issues around being valued or having a sense of belonging. For this, wellbeing needs to be ingrained in your culture.
We work very closely with mental health charity, Mind – indeed, Mind’s chair Stevie Spring was, for a long time, chair of ITG. A brilliant mentor, she still contributes to our wellbeing events and initiatives.
Our culture embraces flexible working, diversity and inclusion, clubs and social events, including events and initiatives for families and client partners, as well as anonymous feedback so the company can constantly listen, adapt and improve.
Each year, our Wellbeing Champions answer hundreds of calls from employees. While many of these calls are merely questions or ideas, they also offer frontline support for those experiencing wellbeing issues.
“Consumers say video is the number one way they discover new brands that they later purchase from”
During lockdown, we dialled up the wellbeing and launched our Stronger Together programme so that our people knew they weren’t alone. We put motivation and mental health at the heart of our activity. We invited all our client partners and suppliers to join us online and had tens of thousands of Stronger Together website hits.
We launched an immediate dedicated social media channel, organised fun online events, and even daily activities for children of employees. Wellbeing initiatives went into overdrive, with daily fitness and yoga sessions, one-to-one counselling, talks and seminars, care packages, daily video updates presented by senior staff, as well as entertaining talks and quizzes.
We’re not the only company who did this, but I have met far too many people who had been furloughed for three months without a single communication from their company.
The right mindset
“Consumers say video is the number one way they discover new brands that they later purchase from”
We work hard to create a culture where people feel challenged but happy in their work, receive useful feedback, and where their wellness makes a massive contribution to their life, while strengthening the company.
We are a dynamic, innovative company – we’re nothing without people who retain their dynamism, who have focus, spark and drive, who can do their job independently and happily. We strive to make employment a fulfilling part of everyone’s life – not an activity that people merely engage in to fund the rest of their life.
You can’t do achieve this if you still have the old ‘work is transactional’ mentality. Wellbeing initiatives aren’t a company ‘perk’. They are a product of your culture. You can’t have a brilliant, genuine focus on wellbeing and at the same time act as if wellbeing is just another cell in a spreadsheet – a part of the pay packet for which you expect more work in return.
A transactional approach misses some of the basic needs of your staff: clear expectations of the job, proper materials for people to do their best work, opportunities to learn and grow, and managers that guide them through it all.
Providing these should be a fundamental part of your culture – not a negotiated part of an employment package. That this part of ITG’s culture was recognised with the ‘Team of the Year’ award is testimony to this culture but, more importantly, to everyone in the company who works so hard to make life better for all their colleagues. Not because it’s part of their job, but because they genuinely care – because it is who they are.
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