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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Workplace wellness—It’s time to talk about wellbeing

Dr Ann Hutchison moved to academia after a career in human resource management. Her research has a practical bent, and is aimed at serving the HR profession. Employment Today talked to her about workplace wellbeing.

How important is workplace wellbeing for those working in HR?

If I was ever asked what is the hottest topic in HR, I’d say it was wellbeing, along with the attraction and retention of staff.

What is receiving the most dialogue in the HR community is psychological wellbeing. It’s well known that if an organisation looks after psychological wellbeing, that will increase retention of staff, the creativity of staff, the performance of staff.

Psychological wellbeing is an ethical issue, an important part of corporate social responsibility, but it’s something that is well worth an organisation investing in for business reasons too. If I was still working in the HR community, I’d be strongly encouraging my employers to invest in their employees’ psychological wellbeing.

Many businesses might be unsure what psychological wellbeing actually is, what it looks like?

Yes, and it’s not enough to say that you want to reduce stress. Stress can be exhilarating and exciting. If it’s interesting work, being stretched and challenged can be quite fun.

A lot comes down to the eye of the beholder—what is stressful for one person will not be stressful for another. If you put an introvert into an environment that requires a lot of extraversion, for instance, that will be stressful to an introvert, but exhilarating to an extravert.

The implications of all this is that managers have to know their staff, be trained and encouraged to talk with their staff, know what questions to ask their individual employees, and how to manage particular workers.

Is work these days more stressful than it used to be?

There’s a shift in the technology, which has raised the pace of work. And the introduction of smart phones has made it difficult to put boundaries around work and life.

But I think the basic psychological principals are the same. Research shows that autonomy is really important to workplace wellbeing—many of us know what it feels like to have a micro manager. People also need to know that they’re competent, to feel like they’re doing a good job. They also need to feel connected to people in a positive way.

Those are key wellbeing issues, which might not be the issues that an employer commonly thinks about. They might think it’s all about workload and stress, but it’s more about how well people’s psychological needs are being met or, conversely, how frustrated they are if they aren’t.

Wellbeing is sometimes interpreted as providing fruit bowls and putting in a ping-pong table, but is that really going to enhance workplace wellbeing?

Having a fruit bowl and ping-pong table at work can be quite symbolic of an organisation caring about its staff. And, personally, if my workplace had a free fruit bowl, I’d love that. It can make you feel good about the organisation.

But a piece of fruit isn’t going to change somebody’s levels of wellbeing. I think a lot of it comes down to the nature of the work, and the way in which work is designed, the quality of the work, how interesting it is, and the level of engagement with that work.

It’s also about the people who are surrounding them, the climate of the team they’re in, and the relationship with their boss.

What advice would you give HR practitioners or a business manager getting started on workplace wellbeing?

I’d start with a diagnostic. What are the actual problems? I’d focus on the work, and the relationship people have with it. If you survey your employees with an online survey, or a focus group, you can find out where the weak spots are.

Do you need to spend a lot of time and money investing workplace wellbeing?

It’s important to invest resources in it, but the way in which you spend needs to be carefully thought through. I’d be inclined to make sure that managers have, and make, the time to manage their workers’ wellbeing, rather than sending employees on expensive courses. Because often the issue is around the manager and the work design. It’s important to invest in it, but the way you invest in it has to be carefully thought through.

Employers interested in workplace wellbeing might like to try Good4Work, a free online tool developed by national health agencies to help businesses embed practices that enhance workplace wellbeing. The tool starts with a quiz asking staff to rate their workplace against 22 statements that cover the essential elements for a positive workplace culture and environment. This provides employers with a starting point and a framework for action, supported by a comprehensive range of resources, all in one place and all for free.

Dr ANN HUTCHISON is a senior lecturer in Management and International Studies at the University of Auckland.

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