MAD World hot topic: is Wellbeing an individual’s or organisation’s responsibility?

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One of the hottest topics at this year’s MAD World conference was undoubtedly the question of where responsibility for wellbeing sits ie. to what extent is it the organisation’s responsibility, compared to the individual’s?

Dr Wolfgang Seidl, Partner & Global Mental Health Consulting Leader, Mercer, believes we are at a “crossroads” in terms of how we answer this question.

“We are moving on from just individualising health and wellbeing in the workplace,” he says. “We can no longer blame the individual and their genes for every single disease, there is much more to it regarding context.”

Toxic cultures & employee wellbeing

In his opinion, organisations should continue to work at the individual level but it’s just as important that they consider the organisational context and how this is impacting employee wellbeing.

“If you look at it from an ROI perspective, 60% of global barriers to people’s ‘unease’ [a word he prefers to the medical ‘disease’] is the absence or presence of a toxic workplace culture; that is the biggest impact on wellbeing there is,” he says.

Dr Chuk Anyaegbuna, Head of Clinical Services at Koa Health agrees that this – the question of the balance of responsibility between organisation and individual – is the “zeitgeist” challenge. He believes that organisations must “look past just individuals” as having “singular responsibility for improving their mental health”. 

The ‘Igloo’ model

He advocates a model called ‘Igloo’ that considers not only the organisation and the individual, but also the ‘group [team]’, the ‘leader’ and ‘outside factors’. 

We are seeing that shift,” he says. “People are talking about it. But I still think there is a gap between people talking about it and the actual execution of it.”

One of the factors getting in the way of the ‘execution’ of this shift, he says, is the fact that leaders are incredibly busy and don’t often give wellbeing the attention it needs to be properly embedded into a business’s strategy:

“The question I’m always asking myself is: how can we make wellbeing something busy leaders spend their time thinking about day to day, rather than just every quarter thinking about something that might involve mental health?”

Stand-out case study: Centrica

One of the stand-out case studies presented at MAD World was Centrica, which skilfully illustrated the answer to this question. Centrica is an example of how an organisation can embed wellbeing across all the ‘igloo’ layers (individual, group, leader, organisation and outside factors) and reap the benefits.

And these benefits are not just ‘soft and fluffy’ (as historically has sometimes been the perception of wellbeing’s efforts), they are real, tangible and affect the bottom line. An organisation’s approach to employee wellbeing now, for example, increasingly affects how investors perceive them, a massive indication of how seriously this issue is being taken today.

Take Centrica. Due to its success at embedding wellbeing through the organisation it has now been listed as one of four companies that have performed the best, achieving the top tier, in the CCLA’s new Corporate Mental Health Benchmark. This ranking was created for investors to ascertain the strength of an investment based on its employee wellbeing strategy, showing that the issue is firmly on the C-suite’s agenda, of larger listed companies at least.

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Less is sometimes more

Sandra Dyball, Director, Health, Wellbeing & Benefits and Emily Gabrielsen, Health & Wellbeing Manager, at Centrica took to the stage to explain how they have approached wellbeing to garner these results. One of the most striking insights to come out of this session is that, while fully committed to taking due responsibility for employee wellbeing, Centrica has actually focused on doing less, not more.

 As Dyball explained, a pivotal part of getting the organisation’s wellbeing strategy right was “stripping out duplication of suppliers” in order to make the offering simpler, clearer and easier to access. 

By doing this, you also address the issue that Anyaegbuna raises about leaders being too busy to embed wellbeing. “We’ve found it’s about keeping things as simple as possible, and not making wellbeing something else they have to ‘do’. It’s just part of what we do on a day to day basis. Small changes can make a massive difference,” says Gabrielsen. 

Buzz at MAD World on this topic

She added, however, that she believes the industry has made great strides on this front generally – not just at Centrica – and is continuing to go the right direction. She felt there was much “buzz” at MAD World this year around organisations genuinely wanting to create a culture of wellbeing which is embedded, rather than something that is seen as separate and peripheral:

“I was here a few years ago at MAD World and I’ve definitely seen the conversations evolve and develop; people understand that employee wellbeing is just as important as safety, and other factors in the business. The shift is really starting to happen.”

Indeed, progressive leaders in the Health and Safety arena were also at MAD World and are 100% behind this shift. They recognise that organisations have a responsibility, not only to physical safety, but also to psychological safety which is integral to mental wellbeing. Malcolm Staves, L’Oreal’s Global Vice President of Health and Safety, is one such H&S specialist, who spoke on a panel about human capital. He reiterates Gabrielsen’s words wholeheartedly:

“I felt a little outnumbered at MAD World representing the Health and Safety role and my perspective is different, but I’m all about people. People, and their wellbeing, must be at the centre of any strategy. They are the foundation of any company. We need to get every one, every function, on board with this.”

Wellbeing isn’t front and centre enough

Julia Biles, Head of Wellbeing at Saga, who spoke on a panel about well washing, agrees with everything Staves and Gabrielsen, say about the need for an organisation to take responsibility for wellbeing, rather than leave it to the individual. But she is less optimistic about how much, or how fast, this shift is happening:

“While the attention is there, the reality of what organisations actually have to do to improve the culture with regards to wellbeing is too much.”

So, while there is a great deal of chatter on this shift, Biles argues there are still many companies where wellbeing isn’t “front and centre” enough and the wellbeing conversations aren’t going on consistently enough at board level. As she says: “Unless there is an acceptance and recognition at shareholder level then I’m cautious about the longer term impact some of these wellbeing initiatives can have.”

Wellbeing washing

She goes as far as to say that initiatives that aren’t part of an embedded organisational strategy, and aren’t taken seriously at top management, are essentially “wellbeing washing”, the topic she spoke about at MAD World:

“Wellbeing washing exists when organisations are not thinking about the wider strategy of linking wellbeing to business performance and getting leaders to really understand the impact that they have on the wellbeing culture.”

Reactive to proactive

However, regardless of whether your company is currently taking an individualised or organisational approach to wellbeing, or a mix of both, there is another trend that impacts both strategies equally: the shift from reactive to preventative wellbeing strategies, another hot topic at MAD World.

As Barbara Jeffery,  Affiliate Partner at McKinsey & Company says: “Where we see the big benefits is moving employees to more optimal outcomes and shifting away from the focus on the individual, the job, the team, and even the organisation and focusing on being much more preventative, rather than reactive.”

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