Wellbeing at work as a collective challenge, not a problem that individuals should struggle with privately

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4 Jul 2022

Alison carter

Dr Alison Carter, Principal Research Fellow 

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The importance of staff wellbeing initiatives is greater than ever, for the staff themselves as well as organisations to continue delivering on their promises to customers. Depression, anxiety, and burnout are just some of the problems. For many staff it is likely that the double whammy of the pandemic and cost of living crises has amplified the risk factors and the personal effects for employees themselves. It can be hard for employees to face a day at work when feeling that they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Burnout reduces organisational capacity and flows through to retention and employer reputation.  Some organisational issues which hinder coping and wellbeing and lead to burnout can be addressed, as suggested in previous IES work, by approaches to realistic job previews, flexible working arrangements and job crafting. Introducing these wider HR approaches is vital. Organisations are being urged to make wellbeing everyone’s responsibility and to create a culture of wellbeing. But how can organisations do this? And how do we mitigate the negative impacts in the meantime? Are wellbeing initiatives focussed on individual employees the answer?

Well, yes, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), counselling and coaching for wellbeing are probably part of the solution. Just taking the sum of each individual’s resilience, mindfulness or wellbeing won’t equal the mindful resilient, change-capable organisation and workplace cultures of wellbeing we aspire to see. Organisations need a different approach. Initiatives that tap into the power of team work and peer support now have a growing evidence base underpinning them. Collective wellbeing interventions offer more time and ‘head space’, focussing on navigating and mitigating the organisational issues and more specifically, peer support models may offer more hope of sustained impact on burnout.

What do we know about more social approaches? And what’s the problem with individual-only approaches? Take resilience training offered only to individual staff on an opt-in basis, or meditation-focussed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) essentially replicating clinical mindfulness in the workplace. Do we find in practice those most likely to benefit from are often the least likely to engage, as stress and heavy workloads put them off? Is there perceived stigma attached to ‘therapy’ and ‘self-help’ in the work setting?

We are not just talking about the benefits of getting people together in a (virtual) room: much individual focussed training for wellbeing is already delivered in group settings. That’s good for reduced delivery costs per person and there can be networking benefits. There is more to collective approaches than that: it’s about a different design and content for the training, not just who is present during delivery. Let’s take two examples. Firstly, mindfulness training. In contrast to a focus on individual stress management, derived from clinical science and contemplative traditions, employees acting mindfully on a collective scale manage stress collectively: they are able to anticipate, detect, and appropriately organise a response to unexpected, stressful problems. This mindful organising is derived from management science.

Mindfulness as a team activity is pretty new, involving training teams to systematically anticipate and respond to stressful situations by learning to be ‘mindful as a team’. The idea is to foster a team culture in which every member is encouraged to consistently notice the needs and reactions of others, especially in the face of stress and creating collaborative solutions to all aspects of demanding challenges, intellectual as well as emotional. This helps teams to become collectively responsible for consistent performance under pressure, leaving no individual alone with their thoughts and feelings when stressed, and thus benefit from every team member’s ‘full capacity to face complex threats collectively’. Previous IES research, in collaboration with Dr Jutta Tobias-Mortlock and colleagues, designed and tested team mindfulness programmes in a military setting, comparing it to a traditional individual programme. An academic summary article is here and the practitioner report is here. The results were clear. People felt more resilient after both programmes, to a similar degree. The team programme was better received – it wasn’t like therapy, plus the majority of people gave examples of how team members supported each other in managing stressful challenges effectively as they arose.

A second social approach to wellbeing is peer support models. Peer support at work is not new. Research consistently shows peer support can be an effective way in which employees can manage their wellbeing and mental health in the workplace. By 'peer support' we mean trained employees offering support to one another in a mutual space in the workplace. Peer support enables employees to talk to others who have a shared experience. But this can be one to one or in group forums and supports psychological resilience at work by enhancing coping skills and providing social support. In the workplace, co-workers could be peer supporters, particularly if they have suffered a similar health problem or condition as the peer they are supporting. Workers with complex chronic health conditions such as cancer, arthritis, stroke, depression, diabetes, obesity, and asthma could be linked with someone who has a shared experience of what this means and can offer a wide range/different types of support.

Schwartz Rounds in healthcare settings provide a structured group setting opportunity for staff to reflect regularly on the emotional aspects of their work. There is some evidence that it is associated with more positive attitudes toward mental and physical health, increased positive coping strategies (e.g. exercise), and decreased negative coping strategies (e.g. using alcohol to cope with distress). Organisations benefit from the resulting development of resilience and reduction in perceived workplace stress. More resilient staff tend to perform better, helping maintain a positive work environment. Peer support programmes also prevent disengagement, absenteeism, and intentions to leave the organisation.

The Balint group method discusses situations arising in practice, which have aroused feelings. It is widely used by teachers and doctors and was originally established as facilitated small group forums to present case studies from their own practice to discuss professional relationships. More recently, there is a growing number of examples of these peer support sessions addressing issues of psychological wellbeing and reduced burnout. The use of simple narrative case studies is popular among professional staff by offering the chance to discuss problems which encourages reflective practice.

What team-based training for wellbeing and peer support models have in common is that they both encourage and enable staff to support each other. Responsibility doesn’t just fall on line managers or the employee, it is about making support for wellbeing everyone’s responsibility. Organisations in any sector can take the essence of social approaches to wellbeing to make their own staff and organisations more resilient in the face of continuing uncertainty. Neither approach is exclusively for employees suffering from ill mental health, trauma, or work-related stress. A successful and well-implemented collective programme is more akin to developing a protective layer which better equips staff to support each other to cope with stressful or upsetting circumstances, or everyday stressors in their life.

An ideal employee wellbeing intervention will reach all employees so that high-risk employees and those working remotely from home or in off-site locations, all have a chance to benefit. Social wellbeing programmes are about building a more resilient whole-workforce.

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