Controversy at The Watercooler; we spill the (eavesdropped) beans on what you truly think

shock image

The Watercooler Event was full of lively debate, knowledgeable speakers and audiences not afraid to ask their burning questions. However, the value of the event is not just these formal opportunities, but also the more informal spaces, where people can chat more casually and let their guard down; the ‘watercooler’ in offices has traditionally been – pre-pandemic, anyway – where these spontaneous conversations have arisen.

So, as well as keeping her ears pricked for the hot topics of the two day conference on stage, our roving reporter Suzy Bashford was on high alert for what people were saying coming out of the sessions when they felt more relaxed. (Yes, some of these were gleaned from unattributable eavesdropping; a rich source of what really matters to industry professionals).

Sometimes it’s hard to say what you truly think with a microphone shoved in your face, or Zoom on record. So, we’ve taken the discomfort out of that process in this article because it’s important that no subjects are taboo and all are brought into the light to be discussed.

What follows is a round-up of the more controversial topline views, where opinions appeared to be more divided and debated and/or more insecure. If you’d like to elaborate your view on any of these subjects, please contact us on [email protected].

Read the arguments below and ask yourself: do you agree?

Wellbeing is still SO white and SO male at the top

Our conference organisers went out of their way to source speakers from diverse backgrounds, and many panels reflected this. Similarly, with regard to gender, which appeared to be very balanced in terms of attendance. Yet there were still murmurings about imbalance of power.

One delegate, Thomas Duncan Bell, known as the ‘Bipolar Businessman’, remarked that he was “overwhelmed” by how many “exceptional” female leaders in the wellbeing industry he met at The Watercooler.

Nevertheless, others commented on how, while this might be true, the top echelons of management – like in many other industries – appear to be dominated still by white men.

Others observed that many women who had gained experience in a corporate environment then seemed to use this to set up their own wellbeing related businesses, perhaps reflecting an inability to juggle all their commitments within a corporate space? Others wondered: is it due to a lack of confidence?

The world of work, said some, is still designed by default for men, not women, and this is not changing quickly enough for their liking.

Other delegates expressed frustration at this, especially given the huge evidence in favour of having more women in senior leadership in terms of a company’s profitability (see this for proof) and also other measures like tendency to take meaningful action on climate change.

Wellbeing led by HR limits its scope

HR professionals who have been in HR all their career, without experience of other functions or industries,  are limited in their ability to effectively integrate wellbeing across companies, said one Watercooler couple in conversation. They argued that the lack of this experience limits their scope and means that they are prone to operating in a ‘bubble’.

Perhaps the celebration at The Watercooler of non-HR representatives flying the flag for wellbeing is evidence to support this argument? For instance, none of the ‘True Leader’ Make A Difference Awards went to people working in HR.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

The winner and the two highly commended candidates were two finance directors and a CEO respectively: Jonny Jacobs, Finance Director, Starbucks (winner); Mark Malcomson CBE (CEO of City Lit); and Javier Echave, Chief Financial Officer, Heathrow Airport. These are all – to the first argument made – white men.

For details on winners, see here.

This is all very well and aspirational, but it’s impossible unless the government helps us make it happen

A bugbear of smaller businesses in particular is that they would love to move to all these wonderful wellbeing approaches being talked about at The Watercooler but they want more support to transition to them. Especially in terms of funding because of the cost of implementation.

One audience member articulated this question in one session asking about whether the government is planning to support companies transition to the ‘3P’ model of profit, people and planet. Even with the best intentions, she said, businesses need financial support to make a difference, a view which garnered many nodding heads.

It’s worth mentioning here that in his March 2023 budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, announced £400m in funding to increase take up of Occupational Health to stop people with musculoskeletal and mental health issues from becoming economically inactive. This includes the rolling out of a health pilot which will enable small and medium sized business to provide employees with a subsidised Occupational Health assessment.

Another attendee voiced their opinion that rather than offering ‘support’, government should be much more heavy-handed with businesses and “enforce standards of reporting and disclosure”, ensuring this happens in wellbeing much faster than it has happened with regard to climate change or we are headed towards a healthcare crisis…

…Unproven interventions may be doing more harm than good

In her presentation which set the scene for the panel exploring the role of employers in enhancing and levelling up the health of the nation, Doyenne of Workplace Wellbeing, Dame Carol Black, emphasised that health needs to be seen as an asset to invest in, with workplace interventions tested and measured better to show what is valuable. There are still many unproven interventions that may not be doing any good or in fact may be causing more harm. 

Picking up this point, a delegate commented that there is much money being spent on solutions to “fix” problems, but the big elephant in the room is: do they really work? Are people actually meaningfully engaging with them? Why are so many interventions not getting good engagement despite having much money thrown at them?

We, at Make A Difference Media, are trying hard to make this less of an ‘elephant’, by focusing our coverage on the need to test, trial and measure all interventions and ensure they are part of an embedded, cross-functional strategy. For more on that see here and here. For Metro Bank’s Chief People Officer Carol Frost talking about the issue of frustratingly low engagement candidly see this article and this webinar recording (which also looks at HR’s role in workplace wellbeing).

Our leaders aren’t walking the walk and are pushing our people to burnout, and it’s so frustrating

One of the most commonly cited concerns was that wellbeing professionals are working hard to get taken seriously by the rest of the organisation, and doing some great, effective work. But leaders aren’t role modelling in the way that would be most helpful.

Related to this was the frustration that, while some leaders may be talking the talk, they were not coming across as authentic. The tension here arises often from the fact that, sometimes, employee wellbeing comes head to head with the ability (or not) to hit a deadline, or meet rigid client demands, for example. Making money is still, felt many, to be the priority.

We see this particularly in billable hours cultures, like law. This was a topic actually debated on LinkedIn recently in response to our profile piece of Watercooler speaker Toni Graves, Head of Reward and Wellbeing, at law firm Allen & Overy. Ahead of her session, she told us that billable hours and wellbeing can be comfortable bedfellows, in this article.

Former lawyer now transformational coach Elizabeth Gilmour didn’t agree, saying: “Billable hours are devastating for wellbeing. Human beings function at their best when they are present in the moment. Obsessing about time is GUARANTEED to keep your nervous system in a state of stress. Anyone who is the slightest bit in tune with their body and who is subject to time recording and billable hours knows this.”

Other Watercooler speakers hit home the message that wellbeing affects us all – whatever our level of seniority – and we all need to embrace the “revolution”, as Echave called it.

Leaders don’t really want us to speak up and challenge the status quo; especially about ‘women’s things’

If there had been an award given out for ‘buzzphrase of the year’ at The Watercooler then ‘psychological safety’ would have surely won.

Given the popularity of our articles and The Watercooler sessions focused on psychological safety, this topic appears to be squarely on companies’ radars, with many saying they want their colleagues to feel empowered to be able to talk openly at work.

However, despite this, there are many employees admitting they don’t feel psychologically safe to speak up – even some saying they think it’s a “fallacy” (see this article here for more on that). Worse still, some say they’ve been badly burnt by speaking up and then feeling punished. “This is a huge issue,” says one such. “People only want to hear from you when you have had success, not when things go wrong… which is counter to what everyone is saying in the industry about the need to be supportive and psychologically safe.”

A few related this particularly to women’s health. While, again, there is lots of talk about this some felt that when they spoke truthfully about their experience they were actually made to feel like an inconvenience, or suboptimal employee. In addition, the point was made that the leader or line manager might not necessarily have made them feel like this, but the rest of the team did.

The lesson: we can’t take it for granted that, just because we have a menopause network, women’s health is fully supported across the organisation.

Line managers shouldn’t be the ones to lead wellbeing conversations

With so much buzz, too, around the need to ‘empower’ managers and upskill them to manage their teams better on the wellbeing front, it was surprising to hear the amount of people who disagreed. There was even a session on it entitled ‘Why Line Managers are the Wrong People to Manage Employee Health and Wellbeing’.

The argument? That’s it’s too much pressure and responsibility and it impacts an effective working relationship, not to mention expecting them to do things way out of remit which should be assigned to a qualified therapist.

Goodshape cited research that only 5% of employees say they’d be most comfortable discussing mental health with their manager, to back up its argument. Aldi, too, was praised in our Make A Difference Awards for its clear understanding of the role that line managers play in the health of their people and its significant investment in training.

However, there were also plenty of voices on the opposing side, too, that were equally controversial in the extent they swung the pendulum the other way. For instance, Mark Lomas, Head of Culture at Lloyd’s of London, in his session talked about not only expecting line managers to lead on wellbeing in their teams but, if they didn’t do a good job, then hitting them where it hurts; in the wallet.

“They need to be held to account,” he said. “They should lose part of their bonus if not managing people well. Tying to remuneration is important. If you lose 15% of your bonus, you might be motivated to change your behaviour.”

Lomas, being a big believer in the power of healthy conflict, was not afraid to openly disagree on stage (his views on this are outlined here). And, whether or not you agree with him on line managers, it’s hard to argue against a world where we are not able to – psychologically safely, of course, express how we really feel.

If you want to share your view, email [email protected]

You might also like:



Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.