Going for gold: why wellbeing is the winning workplace strategy

From high performing teams to cultivating psychologically safe environments, athletes and academics raced to discuss the importance of wellbeing in the workplace at the WELLNESS 18 conference

It took just 21 seconds for Mark Foster to break the world record for short-course freestyle swimming in the 2012 London Olympic Games. A keynote speaker at the WELLNESS 18 conference, Foster explained his personal journey to those crucial 21 seconds and how health and wellbeing played a fundamental role.

At last year’s WELLNESS event, WORKTECH’s specialist conference on wellbeing in the workplace, employees were described as ‘workplace athletes’. This year, Mark Foster explained that you can only be your best if you are able to bring your ‘real’ self to work. Talking about his personal struggle with his sexuality, Foster recalled how his performance in the pool improved the more he opened up and confided in people at work.

An open environment

The workplace environment plays a crucial role in helping employees bring their whole selves to work and open up. WELLNESS speaker, Ash Alexander-Cooper of McChrystal Group explained the importance of cultivating transparent and open cultures, which allow people to admit their mistakes and learn from them. Alexander-Cooper shared his experiences in the British Army, traditionally a rigid and unforgiving institution, and how it needed to adapt to a more fluid network of communication to stay agile in times of combat.

‘Lead like a gardener. Cultivate conditions to help people thrive…’ – Ash Alexander-Cooper, McChrystal Group

Monica Kalia of fintech startup Neyber added another perspective to physical and mental wellbeing: financial wellbeing. She argued financial wellbeing today is what mental wellbeing was just a few years ago – a taboo subject. In 2017, 58 per cent of UK employees experienced financial worries and as a result, brought those worries into the workplace. Kalia urges organisations to align with their employees and provide the right financial education so employees can open up and talk about their fiscal problems to help alleviate their stresses.

Jason Clark of UBS, host venue for the conference in London’s Broadgate on 6 June, complemented the idea of open environments, not only psychologically but also physically. Clark championed ‘brilliant basics’ and ‘removing friction’ as pillars of wellness at work.

Role of middle management

Dr Ivan Robertson of consultants Robertson Cooper attempted to bridge the gap between positive psychology and business outcomes through middle managers. Robertson believes there are three drivers of wellbeing: demand, control, and resources and support. Each driver should be met in equal measure to ensure successful wellbeing – for example, a high- demand workload is not harmful if it is coupled properly with the right support and resources and an element of control. Robertson suggests that middle managers should be up-skilled to moderate the interaction of each driver on employees.

Providing the right resources for a successful health and wellbeing programme is paramount, argued Jeanell English of Discovery Inc: ‘Does this initiative make the job of the employee easier? If not, it’s not worth investing in.’ Middle managers have the most direct influence over employees and therefore it is their responsibility to understand what resources are required and to help guide behavioural change in the workplace, according to Alex Lane of Accenture.

Physical and psychological safety

‘There is nothing more powerful than reducing sedentary behaviour in the workplace,’ says Dr Davina Deniszcyc of Nuffield Health told WELLNESS delegates. But there are a number of interventions that go beyond standard ergonomic sit-stand desks that organisations can set in motion to help reduce sedentary behaviour and create more active work environments. Based on a new report by Nuffield Health and Sport England, A Healthier Workplace, the best intervention for organisations to take is to educate employees and then follow it up with an action.

Alison Webb of International Quarter London supported this perspective with an example used at Lendlease’s Barangaroo Sydney workplace. Information on physical activity is displayed throughout the workplace, alongside suggested mapped walking routes where people could take walking meetings outside.

However, as we all know, employers are responsible not just for physical wellbeing –psychological comfort and safety in the workplace is of equal importance. A panel including Dan Robertson of Vercida Consulting, Kiran Bance of the Bank of England, Jules Parkinson-Thake of Inclusive Employers and Shahid Bashir of Diversity Works, debated the importance of a safe psychological environment through inclusion and diversity. Arguing that no employee should feel scared to bring their whole selves to work, irrespective of their gender, religion or ethnicity, Davina Goodchild of Lionheart charity also placed the responsibility in the employer’s hands to nurture a safe environment for their employees.

Neuro-architecture and workplace

Neuroscience is edging its way into workplace design. Dr Eve Edelstein of Perkins + Will explained that ‘what we see and experience changes our brain’. Given that knowledge workers spend almost a third of their life in the workplace, this means that the office significantly shapes the brain.

Instead of placing people in personality silos of extroverts and introverts and designing for that, Edelstein calls for a more flexible and dynamic change. It comes as no surprise that acoustics and natural light are the biggest bugbears of the work environment, but now we can use experience design and simulations to measure how the brain reacts to different environments before they are built.

Dr Kerstin Sailer of UCL concluded the conference by highlighting the importance of visibility as a tool to bind or disconnect people in the workplace. Using the term ‘isovist’ as a measure of an individual’s 360 degree visual field, Sailer explained that visual control will influence the type of work people will do and how connected they feel to their peers. High levels of visual control – emphasising your own personal view over being seen by others – sub-consciously dictates where people choose to sit. Designers therefore need to be more conscious of furniture positioning within the design process.

‘Visual control sub-consciously dictates where people choose to sit…’

Ultimately, the journey to a successful health and wellbeing strategy in the workplace requires cultivating a transparent and open culture, creating a safe and supportive environment, and educating middle management to be the pillar of change – it is with these changes employees will be able to achieve their own 21 seconds.

View the WELLNESS 18 review site here.
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