How to get high performance without compromising wellbeing?

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The biggest challenge currently facing those who work in Workplace Wellbeing, as we start 2024, is brilliantly summarised by Hannah Pearsall, Head of Wellbeing at recruitment firm Hays:

“The market is a little more challenging now. With that comes people’s concerns about their roles and feeling the pressure to perform. As a business, how do we achieve high levels of performance, in a way that doesn’t compromise wellbeing? This is a real challenge because, ultimately, we are a business and we need to make money.”

Ultimately, businesses need to make money

When attempting to answer her own question, she responds that “there’s no short answer”. But, for her, the first step is for organisations and employees alike to recognise that “wellbeing is a shared responsibility”:

“Yes, an employer has a responsibility to create the conditions for people to make positive choices and make sure the job itself isn’t detrimental to health. But there is also an onus on the individual to understand what is important to them and what are the positive drivers and negative drivers of their wellbeing, so that they can look after themselves.”

The second crucial step is to recognise the importance of the “real basics” of each job and ensuring employees have everything they need, including the right adjustments, to do their role well. Also, are regular breaks built into the job, and are employees taking time to disconnect after work, so they can re-energise?

‘Good work’ more important than ever

Jo Yarker, Managing Partner, Affinity Health at Work, agrees that the current tricky economic conditions, coupled with a cost of living crisis, make the “tenants of ‘good work’ more important than ever”.

“As people continue to face challenges outside of work, their capacity to cope with challenges in work is depleted. This means that work needs to be well designed to enable people to work well. This means managing the sources of work-related stress.”

Yarker adds that the HSE management standards framework is a “useful framework” to consider when establishing the definition of “good work”.

You need to challenge your employees

Simon Ursell, Chair at environmental consultancy Tyler Grange and board advisory to several SMEs, believes that a lesser talked about but pivotal tenant of ‘good work’ when considering high performance is a job that challenges and stretches an individual. If you’re looking for optimum results from your employees, he says, then it’s crucial that you challenge them significantly, not just moderately, and push them out of their comfort zone. This is regardless of all the challenges they’re currently facing outside work.

This might sound counterintuitive to some employers, which may worry that adding more challenge to a job, in the current uncertain climate, could push some employees over the edge, tipping into burnout or mental ill health.

The crucial relationship between ‘challenge’ and ‘support’

But this is not what Ursell has found. In fact, in the past, Tyler Grange used to take the approach that employees performed at “whatever level they felt comfortable with”, while providing them high levels of support to do so.

However, when Ursell was researching the firm’s move to a 4 Day Week and looking at the theory of high performance, he discovered the crucial relationship between challenge and support; the best way to achieve high performance is through providing high levels of challenge, but accompanying this with high levels of support.

As soon as you don’t match the support to the challenge, you will start to see performance levels drop, and vice versa. Tyler Grange has witnessed repeatedly that if challenge is reduced there is also a subsequent problem with lowered self-esteem, which Ursell says he’s “learnt the hard way”.

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Employees enjoy ‘supportive challenge’

“If you put in lots of support, what you’re doing is building a bigger ‘cup’ of capacity for individuals,” he says. “They’re able to perform higher without becoming stressed. Alot of employees operate in their comfortable zone or conversely their ‘red’ zone [when the challenge is too much], but you want to be in the ‘stretch’ zone. You’re pushing yourself but not to the point where you’re going to break. Employees enjoy this supportive challenge.”

In Ursell’s opinion, where many organisations are “going wrong” with burnout is that they’re putting a lot of stress in terms of challenge onto employees without adequate support.

“They might think they’re putting in lots of support, but it’s not very well thought through and they don’t really understand how to deliver that support. I’ve learnt alot about high performance, but I’m certainly not an expert. I rely heavily on people like Suzanne Brown, our in house psychologist, and Rusty Earnshaw, an international level rugby coach who supports us; experts who help me build methods of support. Individuals, after all, need different kinds of support to bloom.”

Individuals labelled ‘weak’

Another problem, he believes, with the dominant corporate culture today, is that organisations create an environment which they deem supportive and then if employees don’t thrive, they are labelled “weak” or lacking in resilience, rather than the environment being blamed.

This is especially currently true of neurodivergent colleagues (although companies are starting to embrace the fact that corporate environments must adapt better if they are to get the best out of these individuals, watch this space for a feature on this soon).

Ursell says:

“Everybody is innately capable of being resilient. If you want to understand why high performance isn’t happening under pressure, you need to look at the environment, and very few people do that. What they tend to do is look at the individual and say ‘you’re weak’ or not resilient.”

What happens if employees aren’t delivering?

Only if you are confident that the environment is genuinely supportive, and accommodates an individual’s needs, can you then conclude that the problem is with the individual, and not the environment. Indeed, Ursell is very clear with employees about what they are expected to deliver in their job – so what happens if they don’t?

“If they cannot deliver then we would look at other jobs they might be able to do, or we would support them to do something else outside of Tyler Grange,” says Ursell.

However, with most organisations under resourced and struggling to attract enough to deliver what’s required, this is not an option for the majority.  Ursell says he does not have a problem with recruitment and puts this down to a high performance culture, where the team feel that they have a purpose to achieve and copious support.  “So they stay, and new employees are attracted to join.  It’s a virtuous circle,” he says. 

So, how in this situation can companies get more from less?

There’s potentially a clue in what Ursell says about adapting the environment for the individual, rather than the other way around. And the person with the most power to create a flourishing environment for an individual is their line manager.

Executive coach and effectiveness trainer with The Brick Coach, Francesca O’Connor, believes that line managers taking the time to understand what motivates each one of their team to perform highly is the key:

“How do they like to receive feedback, for example? Are they the kind of person who needs to be reminded of the things they are doing well, with positive reinforcement? How do they like to be communicated with? Will relating to them in a softer way, rather than direct, motivate them more and make them more high performing? It’s about really understanding individuals and line managers discussing these issues one to one.”

Line managers, though under pressure already, are the key

Of course, the challenge with this solution is that line managers are under huge pressure at the moment, with their time already stretched. But the danger of not taking this time with individuals is that even the ‘high performance’ narrative becomes “toxic”, as O’Connor says:

“High performance becomes a toxic metric when line managers aren’t creating the environment to enable their team and individuals are constantly feeling like they’re underperforming [even if they aren’t]. This means they go into a fight or flight mode, constantly second guessing themselves about whether they’re delivering, the emotional stress of which can burn people out.”

When ‘high performance’ becomes toxic

To avoid this she suggests taking the narrative away from ‘high performance’ completely and focusing on employee engagement, which is linked to productivity, and to the shared common purpose, rather than individualistic targets.

“Get them really bought in to the vision of the company and team and really foster trust as a leader,” says O’Connor. “If you don’t, they’ll just leave or quietly quit in the background. What they certainly won’t do, is perform at their highest level for you.”

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