Health and wellbeing at work: where we are and where we want to be

Blog posts

24 Mar 2023

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

Last week I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the annual Health and Wellbeing at Work conference.  As someone who has attended the conference many times, it is always a pleasure to see how the work of IES helps to influence and shape both thinking and practice in the workplace, but also provides me with the opportunity to reflect on where we currently are with issues around health and wellbeing at work and what we need to do to get to where we want to be.

This year I sat on a panel discussing the future of work. I spoke on what I thought both practitioners and employers should think about and implement when considering health and wellbeing at work. It was important to put this in the context of where employers are at, dealing with a polycrisis of a worldwide pandemic, catastrophic climate change, a cost of living crisis, and an unstable political environment. This has of course led to significant disruption, but also provides organisations with opportunities to change and improve the way they operate. However, as James Tarbit from Ipsos Mori (another panellist) mentioned, 82 per cent of people surveyed think that the world is moving too fast, and it is no surprise that employers are struggling to translate any good practice in the workplace.

This is why I argued that organisations must still do more to recognise the importance of the health and wellbeing of their employees going forward. The Covid pandemic propelled health and wellbeing up the corporate agenda. However, all too often, organisational focus is still very much on cure rather than prevention.  When (and in some cases, if) employees are referred to Occupational Health, practitioners often find themselves figuratively pulling people out of a fast-flowing river, rather than having the opportunity to look further upstream to see what (or who) pushed them in the first place.

This is not to go against the work that ‘well intentioned’ organisations are doing to promote positive health and wellbeing initiatives. However, many struggle to understand what ‘good’ wellbeing interventions are because the evidence about ‘what works’ requires better quality research. When asked by Dame Carol Black who was chairing the panel about what I would like to see in the Budget regarding health at work, I responded that the dream would be a budget to fund high quality what works evaluations – but as a researcher I would wish that!

IES has recently launched a trials unit, bringing together expertise from different research perspectives and subject disciplines to share best practice and use robust research designs to understand and evaluate workplace interventions. Going forward, we hope to enhance the evidence base around what works to help both organisations and policy makers.  And ‘evidence’ was a theme that kept on arising throughout the conference, especially when there are currently discussions in parliament about mandating wellbeing initiatives that may not be fully supported by the current evidence.

We do know that a focus on ‘good work’ in organisations is positive for health and wellbeing, focussing on factors such as job design, effort-reward balance, fairness, employee voice and managerial and peer support. Now is the time to focus on a ‘good work’ agenda, and to understand that good work beats fruit and pilates evangelisation every time. However,  there is a need for employers to collect better people analytical data, as wellbeing intervention are not a one-size fits all solution.  It is best for organisations to understand what they need to focus on, aligning wellbeing interventions with both people and business strategies. Maybe working with IES as we implement our wellbeing audit tool could be an excellent way forward?

In her seminal document, ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’, Dame Carol Black, reported that: ‘Line managers have a key role in ensuring the workplace is a setting that promotes good health and well-being. Good management can lead to good health, well-being and performance.  The reverse can be true of bad management. Good health equals good business, and the line manager is a key agent of change.’ (page 59). Throughout the pandemic and throughout the conference I found there was a tendency to find line managers at the end of a finger waging and bashing, which I often find unjustified.  Yes, there are examples of bad managers, but I argue that line managers’ bandwidth has reduced, the resources they have do the role have not increased, and little has been done to improve line manager wellbeing.  So maybe, now is the time to understand and re-think the line manager role, so we can get the best out of them and those they manage. Here’s some questions to consider when thinking about the future of line managers:

  • Is it time for organisations to promote people to line management roles based on their desire and ability to line manage rather than their technical skills and having climbed up that greasy management pole?
  • Is it time to think about measuring the emotional intelligence of line managers?
  • Is it time to review what training line managers receive? (But I would caveat this with organisations not falling into the ‘training trap’ and ignore what other resources line managers require).
  • Do line managers receive enough feedback about their performance?
  • Do organisations think enough about the line management bandwidth and what the necessary roles of line managers are to stop them from being the ‘squeezed middle’ they have become?
  • What more do organisations and HR need to do to help line managers maintain their own health and wellbeing?

Finally, one of the outcomes of the polycrisis has been the implications on the labour market, as described monthly by IES’s Director Tony Wilson. With a tight labour market, I argue that organisations need to think about their recruitment and retention strategies and the  impact on staff health and wellbeing. Implementing flexibility has been helpful for some, but more consideration may be needed to how fairly such ‘individualised’ flexible practices are used and managed. Once employees are in work, is enough being done to support them in work, and is enough being done to promote progression in employment?  Are careers conversations happening for all staff, and is enough consideration being given to job design and job crafting?

The conference highlighted the importance of allowing employees to bring their whole selves to work, to be able to thrive at work, and people will only be attracted to organisations that provide the opportunity to do so.  It is clear that more thought is being given to health and wellbeing at work, but we are still on that long journey to get to where we would like to be.  With better evidence, better management, and better in-work practices we could get there.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.