Wellbeing is a feeling that can be impacted by a multitude of variables in the workplace. Most employers with a wellbeing strategy get so distracted by pizza Fridays and gym memberships that they ignore the most powerful and the cheapest tool in their arsenal…communication.

Healthy workplaces help people to flourish and reach their full potential which is why wellbeing initiatives are so important and often at the forefront of our HR strategies. However, most well laid wellbeing strategies often fall short of having a real impact because they focus on the wrong things.

I’m sure most of us at some point have experienced workplaces where we didn’t feel looked after or valued, or where we felt unhappy and unfulfilled, because it’s actually very common.

Often companies want to offer things like high street discounts, free gym memberships or pizza Fridays to make staff feel valued and improve engagement. Whilst these are all great tools, they are not enough to move every employee in the business into a state of feeling happy and healthy. At least, not for a sustained period of time.

The main reason for this disconnect between wellbeing and engagement strategies and the employees is usually that employees don’t quite understand what they want beyond surface level stuff and managers are guessing.

Lots of companies use engagement surveys to find out what is important to staff and how the company can go about making them feel more valued. In my experience, the number one response is that the employees usually ask for more money. And while I’m sure that more money would be appreciated, what they really mean is they want to feel like they are appreciated and important to the company.

So how do you achieve a happy, healthy workforce when the employees themselves aren’t quite sure what they want?

I believe we need to go back to what makes most people feel valued: relationships.

We cannot expect to have a high-performing, happy and engaged team without having built relationships with everyone on that team, and the best way to build those relationships is not through an Employee Assistance Programme or 10% off the weekly shop, but through communication.

Everything we do as leaders, people managers and business owners hinges on our ability to communicate with others.

Communication is the most powerful and cost-effective wellbeing tool we have available to us.

It allows us to understand what makes our people tick, what bothers them and what they find fulfilling. Without that understanding, we cannot build meaningful relationships and we are unable to take proactive steps to support the wellbeing of our teams.

What is more, proper communication with our staff helps them to feel valued, supported and, most importantly, listened to.

The beauty of communication is that it doesn’t need expensive tech platforms, nor does it need months of complex implementation. It is simple to do and can be implemented immediately.

1.     General Conversations

The water-cooler type chats you have with your staff go beyond killing time waiting for the kettle to boil. They are actually instrumental in enabling you to understand your team on a deeper level. I recommend leaders take 5-10 minutes per day having little chats with members of their teams and take note of what comes up. You are likely to discover what mood the person is in that day, what their energy levels are like, if anything is bothering them and how they feel about their workload, all of which is valuable information to you as a leader. With that information, you can identify ways to support your team.

For example, if an employee is worried about getting out of work on time to pick up their child from school, think about whether they could work remotely or change their hours.

If an employee discloses that they don’t get out very much, schedule some team building activities to help them build relationships with their colleagues.

Even if an employee says they are happy and generally ok, the fact that you have taken the time to check in on them won’t go unnoticed.

These conversations don’t have to be formal or to a particular structure, just a simple “how are you?” is all that is needed. The real secret to these conversations is making them meaningful.

Employees need to feel that you actually care about what they are saying, otherwise they won’t open up to you. Even if you have a member of staff who really doesn’t want to open up to you, just letting them know they can talk to you if they choose to will make them feel more secure. So make a mental note (or a physical one if you need to) of whether Sally is watching Selling Sunset or the name of Dave’s son who’s had a tummy bug so that you can ask them about it later. Build meaningful relationships with your team.

2.     Regular one-to-ones

One-to-one meetings enable you to build on those general water cooler conversations and dig deep into what’s going on for that individual at that moment in time. It’s a confidential space where leaders can learn so much about their team members as individuals, in particular what that person needs in order to feel valued, happy and healthy.

One to one meetings should be scheduled in advance at regular intervals so that the employee knows that they have designated time with you each week/month/quarter.

I recently met with a client’s employee who suffered from bowel cancer in 2022. The employee has been back at work for 6 months but is struggling to mentally process the last 18 months with his health. We met with him and just let him talk. He got so much off her chest and he found it so valuable to be able to talk openly in a safe space that he requested more regular one to ones with his manager. That meeting also allowed his manager to understand why his moods have been so irregular and why his behaviour was manifesting in angry outbursts.

One to ones can be structured communication such as:

  • How are you?
  • How are you finding your workload at the moment?
  • What are you struggling with?
  • What are you enjoying?
  • What support do you need from me?

But they can also be as simple as starting off with “how are you?” and seeing where the conversation takes you.

Key points to take away

Employee wellbeing doesn’t have a one size fits all solution, and I am not suggesting in any way that offering additional benefits are not influential on wellbeing and engagement. However, there is no point in spending thousands of pounds on wellbeing initiatives if:

  1. They don’t relate to your staff and do not reflect what is important to your people.
  2. You haven’t got the basics right.

Communication seems to have become a forgotten art in the world of work. We rely on instant messages, AI and all the shiny tech platforms that offer so much in terms of “wellbeing solutions” that we forget the foundation of employee wellbeing.

Over the years that I have worked in HR, I have heard countless managers claim that they don’t have time for one-to-one meetings with their staff and I think this is where we are failing as leaders. We all have to-do lists as long as your arm and busy schedules, but if we don’t proactively support and appreciate our employees, we risk losing valuable talent from our businesses.

Employees who do not feel appreciated or happy at work are more likely to be tempted to go elsewhere.

Are we really willing to lose valuable and skilled members of staff for the sake of a conversation?

Shona Hamilton-Higgins
Founder at Lilac HR | Website | + posts

Shona Hamilton-Higgins is on a mission to provide rural SMEs with the best HR support possible to help improve employment standards in rural areas and industries. By partnering with business owners to understand their biggest challenges with people management, Shona works with brands to develop their management skills and implements practical HR advice and support tailored to each individual business.