Mental Health Awareness Week: how moving ‘fairness’ up the organisational agenda could reap wellbeing benefits

Blog posts

13 May 2024

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

When reading news stories about the cost-of-living crisis, continued political unrest, the impact of the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine and how health, social and financial inequalities have all differentially affected societal groups, I find myself muttering ‘why is society so unfair?’ These external situations can begin to have an impact on our wellbeing, as we question ‘what can we feasibly do to help?’ and ‘where can we best make a difference?’ This has an inevitable impact on our wellbeing, behaviours and attitudes, and how we respond to everyday challenges, including at work.

As we enter Mental Health Awareness Week 2024, it is an opportune moment for employers to review workplace policies and practices to ensure that positive employee wellbeing is supported and maintained in the workplace. A lens through which this can be looked at is ‘fairness’. When things seem so unfair outside of work, what can employers do to make sure experiences in work are fair to improve employee wellbeing? 

Is the current workplace fair?

Unfairness is unfortunately happening every day in the workplace. Gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps are still prevalent, with recent research indicating that at its current rate it will take 30 years for the gender pay gap to close. The World Economic Forum (2022) highlighted that although there had been a movement towards more flexible work (predominantly in high skilled roles), unequal access to flexible work still exists as organisations are faced with challenges about how it is implemented equitably. They also noted that although diversity, equality and inclusion has risen up on organisational agendas, the negative employment impacts of the pandemic were proportionally greater for many already disadvantaged groups, and the rate of post-pandemic recovery has been slower for these groups, and as such there is still much more for employers to do.  LGBTQ+ stigma is commonplace, and individuals with mental health, obesity and other long-term health conditions still face barriers at work. In addition, IES research has found that those in low-paid, low-skills roles may have unequal access to progression in employment.

A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted that although organisations are expanding their commitments to corporate social responsibility, only 18% of employees in a worldwide employee survey indicated they worked in a ‘high fairness’ environment, only 33% practiced information transparency and 32% felt supported at work.

How is this ‘unfairness’ manifesting itself in organisations?

The majority of research into fairness at work has looked at its impact on organisational and individual outcomes. For example, when unfairness in how employer practices are implemented at work have been perceived, employees respond by reducing organisational commitment, engagement and organisational citizenship behaviours and increasing staff turnover. Otaye and Wong (2014) reported that unfairness in the workplace has been estimated to cost US employers $64 billion each year (thought to be a conservative estimate) based on losing and replacing employees who felt they had been treated unfairly, and reduced motivation and productivity.

There is also a plethora of research indicating that fairness perceptions (especially in relation to the fairness of manager and employee interactions) can have an impact on employee health and wellbeing. For example, Kivimäki et al., (2004) found that the best predictor of poor health in employees was related to the question, ‘do you ever get criticised unfairly?’, the degree to which employees are treated with respect at work has been associated with increased burnout, and when employees have positive fairness interactions with their managers and supervisors they reported decreased levels of stress indictors such as worry, employee tension and improved overall wellbeing.

What can organisations do to establish fairness in working practices?

Such findings suggest that employers could be doing more to ensure that fairness is achieved to improve both employee wellbeing and organisational outcomes. I argue that this can be achieved through the implementation of both ‘good work’ and ‘good management’ practices.

  • Organisations should have standard practices in place to improve fairness.  These could include standardised pay scales, equal access to training and development opportunities, clear and consistently applied rewards for good practice and clear flexible work policies to avoid one-sided flexibility. Policies and practices to promote fairness should be evaluated and revised if unfairness is still evident.
  • There is a role for HR in guiding organisations to establish an open culture allowing employees to express their views, listen to the opinions of others, support questioning and provide feedback on organisational decision-making processes. If this process when developing policies and strategies is managed correctly then this could ultimately have a positive impact of the success of any policy intervention and organisational practice.
  • Clear and transparent communication channels (both in person, and in a hybrid situation) need to be developed, so information is provided to staff as quickly and fairly as possible. This is especially important in times of change or uncertainty, where speculation about what is going on may move employees to thinking that situations and policies are fair, to them being unfair, if the process has not been adequately communicated.
  • HR managers need to be aware of the importance of high-quality management and the role this plays in fairness perceptions and employee wellbeing. Thought needs to be put into the process of promoting and selecting line managers and developing a line management pipeline. Developing consistently competent line managers so that positive line managerial relationships can occur can help develop perceptions of fairness, job satisfaction and positive wellbeing.
  • Managers need to make job related decisions in an impartial manner. Such decisions are usually made during an appraisal process and there are a number of ways in which appraisals can be conducted to ensure that they are performed consistently and fairly. These include making sure that appraisals undertaken for all employees; that managers are familiar with the work that the appraisee has done and are competent in undertaking performance reviews, use rating systems that are goal-oriented, behaviour based and use detailed information.
  • Managers should also be clear about opportunities for career development and progression, to help minimise employee frustration when they are unsuccessful for a promotion opportunity. Successes should be celebrated consistently across organisations and desired behaviours should be fairly acknowledged.

This Mental Health Awareness Week let’s move towards creating fairer workplace practices to improve and support employee wellbeing. As Joanne Ciulla, an American philosopher and pioneer in leadership ethics once said, “It’s about fairness…not being unmotivated. Issues of fairness such as not being treated with respect, being talked to in a condescending way – these are things that really bother people at work. Instead of having motivational speakers or worrying about psychological issues of, ‘How do we make everybody feel good?’, I say the fundamental grounds for making people feel good is treating them well.”

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