Wellbeing: Check. Why workplace wellbeing sessions don't work!
That’s probably a little misleading, given that I am a wellbeing trainer and duly go to organisations (or link in online) with my stress-busting and resilience building techniques.
My personal and professional mission is simple:
Most people only seek help at the point of crisis, but if you make a commitment to building your mental and emotional fortitude every day (as you might make a commitment to building your physical strength), you are in a better position to:
- Buffer low level stress without detrimental effect
- Be able to return to a state to equanimity (calm) following an anxiety inducing event faster than without such a commitment to your wellbeing
- Find more joy in life as you are not using up so much of your available energy on anxiety that you might be able to address and remove.
For me, it is not always the big choices in life that have the greatest impact – buying a house, changing jobs, starting a relationship – they are defined and they also have an exit strategy – even if it’s not always a happy one…it is the little things we choose to do every day, the little habits we create that really shape who we become…so we need to remember we have agency to choose…and choose in the way that benefits our health and wellbeing.
However, this is not easy. Because our brain is there to protect us, we recognise fear more easily than happiness, and, physically we tend to do things that keep us comfortable. The irony of the latter is that after a while it can become too uncomfortable to make any change at all - even when you recognise staying the same is no longer what you want. So one way to work to beat that rut now is to look at change as having three zones, the first is the "comfort zone" (the place where we spend the most time), the next is the "stretch zone" and the third is the "panic zone". Understandably neither our brain nor our body wishes to get into the panic zone, BUT stretching - well, stretching can actually feel quite nice. Therefore, we can do something - anything at all - that pushes you a little into the stretch zone every day. Perhaps one day you might lift a slightly heavier weight, you might walk a little further, you might take the first steps to learning a new skill. When you get used to the stretch, you'll find that becomes comfortable, and suddenly your old "panic zone" has moved to become the new "stretch zone".
As such, I teach those little stretch exercises such as the following:
1. Keep a mental social distance! Ask yourself before taking something on - IS THIS REALLY MY RESPONSIBILITY?
You cannot save people from themselves. If it is within your power, you can signpost them, and be there should they need a cheerleader, but solving their problems stops you from working on your own, and can teach them to be dependant on you.
- HOW can I best help you?
- What would you like me to do?
- What have you tried?
- What are you trying to achieve?
These questions offer support, because you can then more effectively target your response while also returning the power back to the person asking. …and you can channel the saved energy from not getting involved in their psychodramas, into your own goals.
2. Ask yourself “How might I behave if I didn’t have that thought?”
A lot of the time stress can be created (psychologically) by the story we are telling ourselves. For example, we might think a meeting went badly and then “carry the burden” of that thought the whole day, until someone else tells us “That meeting was great” – if you have ever been in that situation you will see how a change in perspective (however it comes about – perhaps you were able to check a recording of the meeting) can lift stress right away.
Try asking yourself these 4 questions from “The Work” by Byron Katie:
- Is that thought true (and how do you know?)
- How do you feel thinking that thought
- How would you feel/act if you couldn’t think that thought?
- Is there another thought/action that will make you feel better than the current thought?
Little tweaks in our behaviour can result in big wins as we benefit from realigning our connections in the brain (a phenomenon called neuroplasticity), which primes our mind to behave in healthier, happier ways. Getting outside also has huge benefits for our mental health along the same principle – the fresh air helps clear our lungs, but also the sunlight naturally stimulates the production of vitamin D which also assists our immune system – and the sun as well as exercise in it can help produce endorphins (our body’s natural pain relievers) as well as serotonin (which helps regulates our sleep and appetite) and dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter). Not only that but if you’re going out there with friends, you’re likely to also be producing oxytocin – the bonding hormone giving you the feeling of the warm and fuzzies.
…and that doesn’t work you ask?
Of course it works, BUT wellbeing is not simply down to the individual alone!
It doesn’t matter how many classes I teach, or health and wellbeing tools I arm you with if the organisation within which you spend a great deal of your time, is simply using wellbeing as a “check box”…and simply paying lip service in an otherwise toxic environment with no attempt to change.
Workplace wellbeing, seems to have fallen into the same category as “mindfulness” – we’re all doing it, kind of, but we might not really know why!?
“Mindfulness has become so mainstream it seems to have lost meaning”
(‘Note to Self’ Podcast, 2018)
Whenever I ask the question of what mindfulness means in my training, around 50% of my audience will invariably say “meditation”, “breathing” and “awareness” – sometimes they also add “yoga”. The other 50% will call it “hokey” and not wish to hear anymore.
Yet, the concept was embraced within the contemporary business environment, even universities are adding a “Mindfulness in Business” course to their programmes, and there are constant articles citing big names like Google, Apple and intel celebrating the organisational gains “mindfulness” brings – there are positive results to be found.
Mindful practice in day-to-day working results in:
· Stress levels dropping
· Sleep quality improving
· Pain dropping
· An estimated “…$3000 per-employee increase in productivity for the company each year”
· Improved creativity, wellbeing and focus
· Stronger enthusiasm in projects and meetings
(Intel Press, 2013)
· Improved decision making
· Becoming better listeners
· Better focus and open mindedness
· Better collaboration
· A climate of “…openness, acceptance and empowerment”
· Emotionally and intellectually available leaders
· A switch from “hurried multitasking and its psychological blind spots, to one of curiosity, flexibility and opportunity.”
But, according to The Telegraph “lunchtime wellbeing sessions” now appearing in some companies and institutions are – if they are doing anything at all – just making people docile (The Telegraph, 2015). Worse still, rather than incorporate mindfulness as an additional benefit, some US organisations have been providing their employees with mindfulness training in place of holiday entitlement and benefits (Whippmann, 2016).
This has been echoed more recently by the TES (2018) exposing the “sticking plaster” interventions such as “mindfulness apps and massages” – which at least do something, but again are aimed at the individual level, and when there are larger scale interventions, teachers were “press ganged” into attending…that’s hardly conducive to emotional or mental health.
HBR (2019) homed in a little more closely with the somewhat damning observation “…just because these programs can be positive for business outcomes, doesn’t mean their primary purpose is to improve employees’ daily lives”; and Hands on at Work asked “…is there an honest and open culture in place where [staff] feel they would be able to raise…issues? If not, then a health and wellbeing policy will not work.”; with Allwork.space (2021) conceding “The problem with many workplace wellbeing programmes is that they don’t tackle the root cause of most workplace stress – toxic company culture.” (Dr Zoe Watson, founder of Wellgood Wellbeing).
In my own PhD research found the issues of burnout in the workplace in customer facing individuals who used “emotional labour: the display of behaviours and emotions contrary to what they might be feeling because of role expectations ie. A stressed nurse still speaking kindly to a patient) to be the responsibility of Worker, Customer AND Management/Organisation...and in many ways it was the organisation that needed to do the most eg. better manage customer expectations, and support their staff concluding:
“It is notable also that emotional labour research (from both Hochschild’s and Bolton’s standpoints) is largely centred on the performance of the worker. This thesis finds that the emotional labour process necessitates varying degrees of involvement from worker, recipient and organisation, because the transient nature of emotions (eg. Theodosius, 2006; Hennig-Thurau et al, 2006; Rupp and Spencer, 2006) means colleagues and managers, can also be touched by being subject to emotional “transferences”. Further researching, and recommendations overall into emotional labour interactions should therefore encompass worker and manager, worker and colleague, as well as the recipient. Each is involved and each affects others and is themselves affected.
Emotional labour is a highly complex element of service work affected by (and affecting) all parties to its performance, becoming a source of great pleasure, or great pain (and burnout), differing from service to service. Consequently, it must be approached as such (as a three-way interaction) for meaningful developments to ensue.
Practically, it is also therefore essential for service organisations to train for and support emotional labour as an interactive process that is affected by any and all the parties to the interchange. This will have benefits for retention and recruitment of labourers, and only then will performance of emotional labour become a virtuous cycle.”
It is not enough for psychologists to be called in to support organisational wellbeing through stress-busting, coaching, building resilience and giving individuals the skills to manage within a fast paced environment imbued with the pressures of 21st century global living. Because the problem is not just an individual one, even together with highly motivated clients and teams, we are no match for toxic work practices.
Wellbeing sessions which build self-efficacy can only go so far, it is essential that we start to consider how individuals can work with the organisation to embed wellbeing as a pillar of the workplace, not just remain a check box.
Some tools for organisations looking to take an honest commitment to wellbeing:
Audit your areas of weakness
i) Reflect on and correct areas of weakness when issues are raised
Any issue is an opportunity to improve – and it is to be appreciated if your teams gave you the chance by coming to you! You may yourself have identified certain areas in which your response was sluggish or affected company morale and trust. Be aware of what happened, through asking the “5 whys” (asking “why” 5 times to get to the root cause of the problem). Thank your teams for trusting you and giving you the opportunity to make changes.
ii) Know that intellectual awareness is NOT the same as practical preparation
It’s all very well knowing the “theory” of what you might do, but it is action that is essential. SO while you can generate solutions - you need to be able to put those ideas into practice, and if you cannot, then work to adapt them so you can.
iii) Be mindful of your “fear responses”
Crisis brings fear, and fear can result in knee-jerk reactions. Be aware of what yours are so that you do not fall into negative habits. You would not drink poison if you were thirsty, why would you engage in toxic practices just because you are afraid?
iv) When issues are raised and resolved, reflect on “what worked”…
You may find that new adaptations such as “Work From Home” resulted in a better productivity (and fewer overheads, more room to add location based services if people WFH and so on) – if this is the case, think carefully to best optimise any new implementations. Don’t just rush into buying the technology you are using because “it works now” – think about how that method is going to work in the future and how you might want to use it and invest accordingly…and if in doubt, consult with your teams.
V) Focus on team development for the future rather than just for now
Provide opportunities for your team to develop their skills not just in the area that they are in now, but in the field in which they may wish to grow, or that where you can see the business going! Too often training is focused on the here and now, but not with a view to longevity in the field. Invest in your teams, and they are likely to reward you with loyalty whether in the form of staying (ie. You retain top talent), or through reconnecting and collaborating should they choose to move on.
Conduct a “Wellbeing audit”
1. The “wellbeing audit”
Ask members of your organisation to rate it on a scale of 1 – 10 (where 10 is “very true” and 1 is not “very true”)
· I feel cared about at work
· I feel safe at work
· Work is fun.
· Everyone is treated fairly
· When I succeed or am good at something it is recognised
· I can be myself at work
· This is a friendly workplace
· I find work interesting
· My workplace takes bullying and harassment seriously
· I know how to get help when I am stuck with work.
· My workplace values my opinions.
· I know who talk to if I have a problem.
The answers will give you an insight into how your executives are feeling every day, and if there is a problem potentially open up a dialogue for further investigation and positive action.
Then, don’t just offer self-efficacy tools – enable your teams to practice them.
2. If you haven’t already, introduce some formal self-care for the workplace:
· Make sure that your practitioners also know where to signpost their own staff – perhaps add a wellbeing page to the organisational intranet.
· Find out about the wellbeing events on offer within your organisation and organise a team/practitioner session to attend and convey the positives back to the team, while inviting critique of the areas overlooked. Also, communicate any such opportunities clearly
· At the next “team day” (if applicable) consider if a wellbeing activity eg. yoga, singing/playing music together, a massage session is what is wanted, and if not – implement what is desired, where possible
· Encourage your practitioners (if possible) to have personal effects near them so that they can get a “hit” of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) as they see them.
· When back at work - have fruit on offer rather than cakes or sweets.
And above all, role-model the behaviour you want to see yourself!
3. Encourage teams to recognise and respect their boundaries
There are simple things that you can do to make the working day more pleasant:
- Teams must be able to go to the toilet when they need to
- Encourage them to stretch their legs by taking a short walk during the day
- Remind them to drink water – and ideally have it accessible
- State and maintain office hours (and switch your phone/laptop off at a certain time each night) – and encourage the same in them.
- Get them to practice saying:
o Of course I can help but I can only do it at X time
o I only have 5 minutes, and I must get on with X
o Can I let you know at the end of the day/tomorrow?
o Here’s one I made earlier (give them a sample template)
o How would you like me to help you/What do you think is best for me to do/What would be of most help to you at this time?
(or other means of setting boundaries).
Remember that setting boundaries not only protects one’s own emotional strength but makes it clear to others when they are available to help them. Sticking to them as much as possible is part of making a commitment to valuing ones-self and thus preserving performance…and if the team is struggling, it is down to the organisation to help!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt