Should a workplace committed to supporting the wellbeing of their staff also be focused on employee happiness? The short answer is, yes. The long answer involves, why–and how.
For World Wellbeing Week I had the opportunity to speak with Lord Mark Price, formerly the UK government’s Minister of Trade and also former Managing Director of Waitrose and Deputy Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. Mark has spent over thirty years unlocking the power of people in organisations and he’s passionate about creating engaged and happy workforces who in turn create longer-term sustainable success for businesses. This passion has led Mark to found Engaging Works, a company whose mission is to help people get happier at work.
Mark breaks down the ingredients for happy workers, happy workplaces and the role leaders play in nurturing these successful–and well–working cultures, in this exclusive interview.
The John Lewis Partnership is seen as one of the most progressive employers in the UK in terms of employee engagement, employee loyalty and also in terms of how it supports staff mental health. What do you think this is attributed to?
The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has been a forward-thinking organisation for a century. When John Spedan Lewis took over the Partnership in the 1920’s he put company shares in a trust for the purpose of employees. His view was to focus on the happiness of staff, which he believed would result in more loyal employees and ultimately more success for the company. His vision has been a success as the JLP has consistently been awarded the best retailer to work for in the UK and due to this unique employee ownership model, there has been much lower staff turnover than the retail sector average.
With all shareholders being staff at the JLP, it makes the company more thoughtful, and management more thoughtful. It means involving people in more decisions, which gives them a stronger sense of ownership, and of purpose in their work.
Before the NHS (National Health Service) began, Spedan Lewis brought doctors into the business. This was unusual, and quite progressive, in the early 1900’s. The Partnership always wanted to look after people. A committee was started in the company to help support healthcare needs of partners and to provide loans for staff.
I always say that for companies that look after staff mental health, the staff are happier and their overall profitability is better. The John Lewis Partnership is a prime example of this.
Tell me more about what happiness at work means to you?
Socrates and Aristotle spoke of the importance of happiness. Every act of every human is driven by a personal desire for happiness and it’s the highest tier of altruism. Doing something good is ultimately good for everyone’s mental health. It’s good for leaders as well to do good things for people.
If you sat down with a senior leader and asked them the last thing that made them feel good, happy, I bet it will be something altruistic. Like helping an old lady across the street.
When I went to business school in the 90’s shareholder value was central but things have shifted. Happiness and more engaged employees are what’s more important now.
If people are happy at work, they have better wellbeing, they work harder, stay longer and companies benefit.
I completely believe that if companies focus on the happiness of workforces, it’s better for the people, the companies and society.
Countries with the highest workplace happiness scores are the most productive nations. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France were above the UK and the US in Engaging Works’ 2019 State of the Nation report.
It’s the reason I built Engaging Works, after working for the John Lewis Partnership for 30 years building a culture of happy employees, I wanted to help more people by focusing on happy employers.
What role do you think leaders should play when it comes to creating happy, mentally well workplace cultures?
The truth is it always starts with leaders, they must demonstrate what the company stands for. You have to be a believer. Leaders must believe in the messages they’re putting out to the company, otherwise they don’t resonate with staff. They have a moral responsibility, and as I mentioned before, there’s a commercial benefit too.
For example, as Managing Director of Waitrose (within the John Lewis Partnership), I saw it as a privilege to help support the working lives of 60k staff. To make their lives better. We should be asking leaders, what have you done at work to support people? Are you supporting people to become better leaders?
When I talk about leadership, it’s about:
- Experience – People need to believe in you. You need to be credible.
- The ability to galvanise people in a certain direction.
- Recognising you can’t do things alone, only with a team. It’s a team that achieves something. It’s not you alone. It’s standing at the top and saying, ‘we did this together, now what’s next?’.
Many people get stuck at the manager level because they don’t learn these skills.
When you’ve gotten the top, you have to reflect on what you can give back. Change your thinking 180 degrees. You must think, how did I get here. What can I share to help others become better leaders?
Culture is the sediment of past transactions. You can’t think of it in abstract. It only comes to life with what’s observed by individuals on a daily basis. You can’t change a culture in two months, it takes years.
What were some of your own wellbeing tools as a leader, when you were responsible for 60k staff at Waitrose?
Writing or getting a good night’s sleep are what works best for my wellbeing. I used to wake up at 6am before my family to switch off. I started writing in the mornings. It was something I did instead of sport (I used to play a lot of rugby, football and golf) as I had less time for that between my job and having a young family.
And when I’m under real pressure I always prioritise sleep. The more senior you become, the more you deal with problems and issues.
You must accept as a leader, these are just parts of the job. You become really good at it. Some things are easier to deal with than others. Acceptance of this helps.
People make mistakes. There’s no use in blaming. Rather look at ‘how do we deal with this?’. ‘What’s our response to this?’. I don’t see blaming as productive. I rarely get stressed.
When I was at London Business School, Professor Rob Goffey’s teachings really stuck with me. In terms of managing wellbeing around work issues, ask yourself:
Is it your issue? Is it your responsibility? If it’s not your issue, tell yourself, I’m not going to give my energy to this. I’m going to let it go.
Thinking in this way, I never worried about other people making decisions I didn’t agree with. I only focused on what I could control. My world. My responsibilities.
If you have a problem: deal with it. Take it head on. Do not dwell on it.
Can you tell me about your company Engaging Works? What was the basis for starting this business?
I spent a lot of time thinking about why happiness at work mattered and what contributes to this when I set up Engaging Works (EW), a company that helps people find jobs at the happiest places to work; check their overall happiness at work and achieve more in their work.
We offer jobs in companies that rank the happiest to work for.
There are two main reasons why people leave a job:
- A bad relationship with a manager
- People don’t feel they’re being paid fairly
Part of the problem with mental health at work is people know these elements aren’t working for them, but they stay.
If you’re going to spend all these hours working, you’ve got to enjoy it.
I’ve been able to distill these elements into a survey. We offer feedback, advice and guidance through EW. Through our survey people can find out what they need to continue to be happy in their job, or about new jobs where they might find themselves happier. It’s free to take part.
Covid-19: What can companies learn from this about their employees?
We’ve learned in our recent EW survey over Covid-19:
- Overall people are happier working at home
- People miss socialising with colleagues
- Organisations will have to think harder about the social side of work
- Career progression and satisfaction is lower now
- Organisations are looking after wellbeing more than before
- 80% of respondents want a few days a week working at home and a few days at the workplace
Did you survey have any findings about staff mental health and wellbeing?
Yes, in our surveys we’ve found that the most unsettled group are white men in their 40’s. Technology is taking over and some men are not feeling skilled enough to take new jobs which require more tech skills.
It is the responsibility of companies and the government to re-skill people. We may be looking at disenfranchised 50 year-old men going ahead, but they don’t feel like they’re disenfranchised. What our research told us is white, middle-aged men feel less empowered in their jobs than female counterparts.
What advice would you give to businesses in approaching happiness of employees in the Covid-19 recovery period?
Consider how happy employees are now not commuting.
Helpful data from EW’s recent Engaging Business Working From Home Analysis Report surveying 3,000 homeworkers in the UK found 17% of private sector employees preferring to continue working from home and 49% of private sector staff wishing to work from home at least a few days a week as we recover from the health pandemic.
Think about the social element of workplaces and how to recreate that. Also, about career development. If you’re not ‘seeing’ people, how do you assess their career progression? We have to come up with new ways.
I think it’ll lead to a far more flexible approach to working. Beforehand many bosses didn’t trust people to be productive at home. But our survey shows people are actually more productive. Companies need to think about how to get people back to the workplace feeling as happy as they are now, at home.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.