With record long term sickness absence and 1 in 8 of us on an SSRI (anti-depressant also used for anxiety) creating effective wellbeing at work has never been more important.

Fundamentally, wellbeing at work is less about apples in the office, yoga and mental health first aid programmes and more about creating an environment in which a happy, productive workforce can air grievances or concerns openly, and be supported through troubled or stressful times. We all know a happy workforce is a productive workforce – but how do we achieve it and, just as essentially – who is responsible for achieving it?

Who should employees turn to?

At the organisational level, in the past HR Benefits teams were responsible for wellbeing. This constituted benefits and initiatives such as fruit Fridays, Pilates classes, and cycle to work schemes to make people feel warm and fuzzy about their employer, as well as provide  encouragement to improve physical health. All of these are still relevant and useful, but in recent years, partially due to COVID, the remit of a wellbeing strategy has substantially expanded.

Seven or so years ago, companies began to consider the mental as well as physical health of employees and this meant that with “health” in their title, health and safety professionals also got involved – primarily introducing mental health first aid programmes.  When COVID hit, and in its aftermath, together with an intention to just make people feel a bit better during a difficult time, the new workplace discipline of “wellbeing” quickly became a corporate priority.

This new discipline is often paved with good intentions, but is usually ill-defined, unmeasured and either placed at too junior a level to make a significant cultural difference or between HR and health and safety without a clear definition of who is responsible for what.

In essence, the considerations are wide and whilst various departments (or even a full-time head of wellbeing) may take responsibility for coordination and expert recommendations, wellbeing strategy needs buy in from the board. It intertwines with strategies such as Health and Safety, People and Culture, EDI, and now with Environmental Social and Governance (ESG).

Wellbeing strategy is in fact an integral part of a business’s overall mission and values.

Considerations range from training, to health promotion, to support when someone is off sick or needs help (such as Employee Assistance programmes and Occupational Health). Basic mental health training is a key tenet of most well-being strategies. Increasingly, as well as EAPs, large employers are also offering private healthcare, online GP support, fertility advice and raising awareness on topics such as menopause, neurodiversity, fitness, nutrition and financial well-being.

Then there is the often-overlooked importance of understanding stress risks specific to your organisation and how to design those out or mitigate. This is where Health and Safety, using their understanding of risk assessment should be working with HR who hold engagement data.

Finally (and most importantly!) with 69% of a person’s wellbeing at work[1] being down to their relationship with their manager, ensuring that you have a clear behavioural framework for managers and that resources are put to ongoing training in this area is critical.

Training your managers

Managers are not therapists, life coaches or doctors and should simply be empathetically supporting a struggling employee to find the right help and offering reasonable adjustments where this will work for the business.  However, having that conversation, starting it, can be incredibly difficult.  Managers worry about being intrusive, saying the wrong thing, making it worse, not knowing what to say and landing up in a tribunal ….

Training needs to cover:

  • Stress prevention – Creating an environment of psychological safety – especially the self-awareness on the part of the manager which that implies
  • Spotting the signs that someone in the team is struggling – this can be harder in today’s hybrid world, especially where we may not know what “normal” looks like for an individual.
  • How to approach that individual, how to say what you have noticed and ask them if they are really OK. How to assess the gravity of the situation.
  • Being present and listening nonjudgmentally – most humans are hard wired to try to solve. We are constantly judging, evaluating and often listen to respond. In spite of not being therapists, we might want to unlearn those behaviours as far as possible as humans need to be acknowledged and understood first and foremost and then they can move to a solution
  • Co-creating the plan – with the person not for them
  • And finally an awareness of their legal duties under Health and Safety and HR law

Manager duties

The duty of care that employers have to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of their employees through a stress prevention approach is held in The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA), however it is the Equality Act 2010 (EqA) which governs responsibilities for when an employee is suffering from a mental ill health condition which may constitute a disability.

Regular communication and trust-building with employees are crucial in creating a supportive environment. Golden rules for managing wellbeing issues would include adopting a prevention-first approach, encouraging open conversations, documenting discussions, offering reasonable adjustments, involving HR specialists, and conducting return-to-work interviews. Confidentiality is a tricky area – with reassurances that health concerns will be kept private unless there are legitimate reasons to share the information.

Manager training needs to be integral to your wellbeing strategy. By understanding legal duties, implementing best practices, and fostering a supportive culture, employers can effectively manage employee wellbeing and reduce the risks of sickness absence, low staff engagement, discrimination claims and workplace issues.

[1] The Impact of Work on Mental Health • The Workforce Institute at UKG

Heather Beach
Managing Director at The Healthy Work Company | Website | + posts

With 30 years’ experience in Health and Safety, HR and mental health support, Heather focuses on training managers and HR personnel to support staff wellbeing and create practical frameworks for a thriving workforce. She works with organisations such as the Telegraph, ITV, Kuehne and Nagel, Eurostar, Mace, and Luton Airport.