A healthy organisational culture – the key to employee wellbeing

Employee wellbeing continues to rise up and up the corporate agenda and it’s a measure of its growing acceptance that more organisations are approaching it in a holistic and strategic way. Increasingly businesses have a wellbeing strategy in place and of those that presently don’t, many are planning to.  In a just-published survey of 1076 HR managers worldwide, we find organisational spend on wellbeing programmes continuing the upward trajectory seen in recent years. For those of us that have been championing the wellbeing agenda for some time this is welcome news.

[For some businesses] a commitment to employee wellbeing is only skin deep, using the programme as a means of directing attention away from corrosive aspects of the organisational culture that it is unable to, or chooses not to address.

Though it doesn’t always feel it, wellbeing at work is a relatively young field, so it has taken time to build the evidence base to show that investing in it makes business sense. Now we have an abundance of research testifying to the positive impact of wellbeing programmes on the bottom line and this report shows that businesses have been listening.  Employee wellbeing strategies offer organisations the opportunity to invest in something that is, in the main,  highly valued by employees yet which also positively impacts on a whole  range of business imperatives like sickness absence, presenteeism, talent retention, morale, employee  engagement and productivity.  All well and good then, because with a truly effective wellbeing strategy everyone wins.

And yet despite this progress, I feel compelled to strike a cautionary note. Whilst all businesses will appreciate the bottom line benefits, many are also investing in wellbeing because they feel it’s the right thing to do and because it is consistent with their values and strategic priorities. Others may be doing so purely for financial reasons or because they see their competitors doing it and don’t want to be left behind. For some of these businesses there is a real risk that their investment may not reap the rewards they are hoping for.

And the reason why?  A wellbeing strategy in itself, with all of the standard features such as EAPs, occupational health services, good nutritional options and fitness programs, will only be truly effective if it’s aligned with the culture of the organisation. The problem is that many businesses overlook the cultural dimension when they introduce wellbeing programmes and their organisational environment may not support its success. In businesses implementing wellbeing strategies most effectively,   the various components of organisational culture, the policies and procedures, the line manager behaviours, leadership priorities and even company values, all in their different ways support and reinforce their wellbeing strategy.

Too often however, this isn’t the case and wellbeing programmes are bolted onto existing staff amenities with no consideration of their fit with the organisations culture or whether there is support from important stakeholders. All too frequently wellbeing sits unloved in HR with little or no buy in at board level.  What you then risk is having wellbeing programmes that are trying to create a healthier workforce alongside an organisational culture that is pushing the opposite way,  perhaps through the encouragement of long hours, having an exclusive focus on hitting targets, or employing punitive line management behaviours to achieve business goals.

Even in such adverse circumstances wellbeing initiatives can still have some beneficial impact and elements of it may be well received by employees. But the effects of an unhealthy organisational culture will almost certainly prevent significant improvements in performance and productivity from materialising. Indeed introducing the programmes may even result in heightened employee cynicism, as they feel the business is papering over the cracks, that its commitment to employee wellbeing is only skin deep and that it is just using the programmes as means of directing attention away from corrosive aspects of the organisational culture that it is unable to, or chooses not to address.

Employee wellbeing strategies have the potential to bring huge benefits to employees and employers alike but they need to be introduced in the right way for the right reasons, and at the right time.  To be properly effective they need to be developed in a holistic way, consistent with a business culture that is conducive to their success. That means supportive management behaviours, flexible working options and an open culture that allows employees a voice and some say in shaping the working environment. Real preparation is needed before the strategy is launched,   to ensure that all relevant parties understand that they have a role to play; business leaders in giving it their support and promoting it within the organisation, line managers who must understand the strategy and encourage its  adoption by their teams, and employees themselves who need to accept responsibility for their health and wellbeing, especially as they will benefit from the initiatives,  not just at work but in their personal lives too.

With all of these things in place you have the right levels of commitment and the kind of healthy organisational culture that allows a workplace wellbeing strategy to succeed. The strategy will be perceived as authentic and will be appreciated by employees who will see that it is congruent with the organisational culture, as they experience it on a day to day basis. When you have a wellbeing strategy that is rooted in the culture of the organisation that’s when you can expect to see the benefits for employees and for the business too.

Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing - Bank Workers Charity - Paul is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace. A collection of his writings can be found on BWC’s blog Wellbeing Pulse - http://thewellbeingpulse.com/ @Lcoridon