Looking after our people

Josie Askin, guest expert contributor for Institute of Directors, September 2021

Turning health and wellbeing intent into action, from the top down.

The gap between intention and reality

OPINION: Guy Kawasaki, author and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said that the hardest part is implementing a decision, not making it.

As a director considering your organisation’s health, safety and wellbeing policies, it rests on your shoulders to make decisions that can be properly implemented in real terms, by all levels of management. This responsibility, as laid out under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), puts workplace health, safety and wellbeing squarely on the boardroom table.

However, what exactly that agenda item covers is likely to vary from one organisation to another. For instance, how does one interpret the HSWA’s deliberately nondescript mandate of primary duty of care? This is a common question, as outlined in WorkSafe’s What is the primary duty of care?

“PCBUs [a person conducting a business or undertaking] must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a work environment that is without health and safety risks.”

The conversation becomes murkier when the definition of “work environment” is considered. Work environment can include the physical workplace such as lighting, ventilation, heat and noise as well as psychological factors such as overcrowding, work arrangements, work-related stress and fatigue. We also now have to consider physical and mental health impacts of the work-from-home environment since the emergence of covid-19.

While the bad news might be that the pandemic has increased workplace mental health and wellbeing issues, the good news is that they are being aired in boardrooms far more than previously. Results from the 2020 Director Sentiment Survey indicated that in 2019, 62% of directors had discussed workplace mental health and wellbeing. Only one year on that figure had increased to 81%.

In “Focus closely” from Boardroom’s Autumn 2021 issue, WorkSafe’s CEO Phil Parkes calls on directors to take positive actions to understand risks and develop mitigation strategies. This means going beyond policy development and  and requiring regular reporting. Directors should ask themselves what they need to do to make sure their people are looked after, as it is often the gap between intention and reality that can lead to harm – as Kawasaki so rightly points out.

Why investing in workplace wellbeing makes good business sense

recent study from Xero and New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) shows that for every dollar spent in organisational wellbeing initiatives for staff, they can expect to see a twelve-fold return within a year.

Gains are found in a number of ways including increased productivity and engagement, reduced sick leave, presenteeism, and staff turnover. With the current job market, retaining and attracting top talent by having a comprehensive workplace wellbeing programme is crucial.

In fact, almost 90% of professionals agree that an organisation’s workplace wellness policy is important to them when considering new opportunities, as outlined in a Robert Walters whitepaper on promoting employer health and wellbeing.

Turning intent into action, from the top down

There needs to be a shift in thinking from seeing health and wellbeing as a tick-box policy exercise or hosting an occasional workplace wellbeing workshop, to something that is ingrained in the culture of the organisation.

This culture needs to be demonstrated by leaders and staff alike every day. Having information to hand for staff on healthy behaviours, mental health issues, how to manage stress and where staff can get help is all very well. But it will have little impact if the underlying causes of stress and individual barriers to healthy behaviours are not addressed.

We need to shift the focus from reactive treatment of a problem to proactive prevention of the problem. If meaningful and lasting change is to occur, the shift in thinking about wellbeing needs to start at the top, with directors and senior leaders.

What does this mean? It means those at the highest level need to practice healthy behaviours themselves to ensure consistency between direction and leadership. It means they need to create an authentically safe and healthy culture for staff to follow – in other words, set an example.

In my own work with business owners it is not uncommon for them to have genuine concerns about the health and wellbeing of their teams. This has been especially highlighted during covid-19 with disrupted work, long hours, missed breaks, and some staff facing aggressive clients and customers. Stress and anxiety are increasingly common.

However, when I ask business owners what their own standard work days look like and how they were doing, it usually mirrored that of their teams. They were modelling the behaviours they wished to change and yet they expected their team’s behaviour to be different.

Social modelling is powerful. We do what we observe, not what we’re told.

The right conversation begins with the day-to-day

What is the right conversation to be had around the table? It begins with day-to-day conversations and the right questions, such as:

  • Is there a gap between our policies and practices?
  • Are there any patterns in staff leave or resignations that may provide clues as to the real culture of the organisation?
  • What are the demographics of your staff?
  • What are the conversations around the water cooler?

In answering these questions, we can begin to build an organisational risk profile.

In the same way that every organisation is different, all organisations will have an individual workplace wellbeing risk profiles based on industry, size, staff demographics and culture.

Understanding your own workplace risk profile will ensure you deliver the best bang for buck when it comes to implementing wellbeing initiatives.

The power of small steps

I’ve spent a long time studying human behaviour and change: how some people achieve the change they’re looking for, while others struggle to get past the starting line; how some people return to their old ways, while others sustain these changes for a lifetime.

What sets these people apart is the approach they use. The best way to create lasting change – at work and at home – is through the power of small sustainable steps. Focusing on one thing and doing it regularly until it becomes a habit, before moving on to the next.

An early 2000s behavioural study found intention to change behaviour is only modestly connected to actual behaviour change and this is influenced by the human tendency to stick to the familiar.

Research also shows that the best way to create sustainable change is through the power of daily keystone habits, like the eating of an apple in the common apple-a-day saying we grew up with. Thereby, to create a sustainable change in culture, boards and senior leaders need to look beyond single workshops or training events, and consider policies that feature daily activities starting with a single habit.

Staff don’t go from happy and healthy to burnout overnight. Instead, burnout is a slow burn resulting in extreme physical and mental exhaustion impacting one’s work and home life. So too sustainable change takes time requiring small steps and a few missteps along the way. As humans we learn best from failure; we’re motivated to avoid the pain that comes from past mistakes so we progress faster. The more complex the change, the more trial and error is required.

About the author

Josie Askin, CEO of Spring Coaching, is a performance and productivity coach who works with driven leaders and entrepreneurs to improve their performance and productivity, by applying a focus on wellbeing.

Josie has nearly 20 years working in government, in a range of advisory roles. She became interested in the gaps between workplace performance and wellbeing, gradually building analogies between sport and business performance while gaining several coaching qualifications. Now she deals with clients under pressure from all walks of life offering tailored leadership performance coaching, workplace wellbeing programmes, workshops, speaking and facilitation.

She has just released a new programme The power of small steps, a curated online programme for busy people to help keep people motivated and accountable to accomplish goals in small, manageable steps.