Don’t shout it from the rooftops, but most managers and most employees in a workplace have good intentions. Really. And one of the commonest good intentions of bosses is to do what they can for employee wellbeing.
So why does it so often go wrong? Why do good intentions end up as eye-rolling “teambuilding” sessions, semi-compulsory golf days, and reward schemes that completely miss the mark? With good intentions going in, how can it be that workers are cynical and managers are frustrated so much of the time? Why do employee wellbeing initiatives so often end up looking like an episode of The Office?
The answer is remarkably simple. If I offered you a choice of refreshing drinks that included carrot juice, beetroot juice and prune juice, you probably wouldn’t want any of them. The fault doesn’t lie with your willingness to be my guest or my desire to be hospitable; rather it lies with the fact that all my choices are bad.
In the workplace, most of the choices organizations make for wellbeing are bad choices, selected from a worn and hackneyed list of alternatives that don’t work particularly well.
The problem with making better choices is that you only know what you know. That’s especially true when you have a thousand other priorities to handle, no time to spend on extended investigations of alternative ways to help wellbeing, and no willingness to risk something “weird” that might fail. It’s not that we lack imagination, more that the pressures of the everyday force us into familiar choices.
The great irony is that wellbeing is so trendy now. Good leaders have always known that wellbeing is at the heart of any decent work team, but now we have a situation where everyone wants to get on the bandwagon – and the bandwagon has a broken axle.
While still Chairman of the Federal reserve a couple of years ago, Ben Bernanke appealed for a measure of human welfare as a key economic indicator, to sit alongside more traditional indicators of economic health. Rather than appealing to old and tired methods of promoting welfare in the workplace, Bernanke was appealing for fresh ideas and new thinking.
Here are five hints for avoiding hackneyed, mundane, quiet-groan-inducing non-solutions for employee wellbeing that make staff long for retirement or death. Or if you are not the boss, here are five things to suggest to the boss if she or he is taking inputs.
1. Don’t feel that, as the boss, it’s up to you to come up with a solution. Include your team, ask for thoughts, and give them some power and creation. Developing a good strategy to help people be really creative at work (when it’s appropriate) is a much better use of your time and “boss” expertise than calling six laser tag companies.
2. Don’t intrude on peoples’ private time. Even in the best job, we need to get away and to decompress. For the majority of your workforce – whatever they may say to your face – a “golf day” on a Saturday is a day at work, not a day off.
3. Do encourage people to take charge of their own welfare. Your role is to get expert advice (for yourself as a boss, and for your staff if they ask), to make resources available (yes, that means spending money), and to demonstrate by your actions that you take staff welfare seriously.
4. Do make sure that all personal styles are catered for. Not everyone enjoys raucous team-based activities for extroverts, and unless you run a company of game show hosts, not everyone needs to. Leave some personal space. Avoid activities where everyone has to have the same personality type in order for it to be fun or beneficial.
5. Do make it an all-the-time thing. You’ll get far better results from a small monthly or weekly investment in wellbeing than you will from an annual convulsive effort to “validate” people in a cheesy way. Learn from the truly happy workplaces, where it’s an everyday thing, not a once-a-year rubber chicken thing.
If your wellbeing program is well done, funnily enough your team will probably get more benefit, creation and power from taking charge of their wellbeing development activities than they will from the activities themselves. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s how you’ll know you’ve won.
And start by reaching for all those old choices, those compulsory sports days, the teambuilders teaching juggling, and the consultants lecturing your beaten-down team. Reach for these options, take firm hold, and throw them over your shoulder with great force.