Watercooler hot topics: job design, measurement and the ethics of wellbeing

Watercooler-2024-194 (1)

One of the standout sessions from this year’s Watercooler Event was entitled ‘Aligning HR, Reward and Wellbeing with the organisation’s commercial strategy’ because this covered three current “biggie” issues in employee health and wellbeing:

  1. The delicate balance of getting job design right so it stretches an employee to their peak performance without tipping them into overwhelm
  2. How you measure the impact of your wellbeing work 
  3. The ethics of wellbeing

Job Design: how do we get the right, tricky balance?

While undoubtedly job design is a major factor influencing how an individual feels about their job, and their stress levels, panellist Stuart Hughes, IOSH President and Head of Health and Safety at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team, was honest about the fact that job design must work for the organisation, not just the individual, and sometimes there may be tensions on this front. 

He gave the clear example of his day job at Mercedes. “It’s very difficult to build a Formula One car from home, so you have to think about how flexible you can be an an organisation,” he said. “It’s that balance of how do you make things equitable for individuals and sustainable for organisations.”

As he explained, while you might not always be able to design the level of flexibility some employees want, what you can do is look at other ways you could build in good job design to “bring other impacts or benefits to the individual”. What you don’t want to do as an organisation, if you’re in Mercedes’ position where flexibility might sometimes be challenging is “be so agile and flexible that you stop hitting your purpose as an organisation”, say Hughes.

As often with wellbeing, it comes back to striking this delicate balance between the individual and the organisation. The challenge for professionals, as Hughes articulates, is to find “the sweetspot”. That said he doesn’t underestimate for one minute the huge impact that job design has on an employee’s wellbeing and calls on the audience to recognise its “massive significance”:

“The impact of job design on people’s mental health and wellbeing is massive and we need to make sure we’re designing jobs that people can come and can do, understanding what is stretch and what is too much within that design. You don’t want anyone to be flat and deflated from lack of stretch, and also you don’t want them to have so much stretch they are failing all the time and are hyper uncomfortable. That’s not an easy balance, but it’s possible.”

Fellow panellist Sabrina Robinson, Wellbeing Lead, Essex County Council, rightly points out that the other thing about job design that is so tricky is that it touches on so many different parts of the business. It’s also challenging in an organisation like the Council where there are so many different roles. “And with that comes different design for different roles,” she says. For her the key questions are around ‘what do we need people to do?’ and ‘how are they going to be supported doing that’. “And that’s why as a subject matter expert in workplace wellbeing within our organisation, I can’t do this all on my own; I have to work with colleagues across HR and business partners, etc, wellbeing has to be woven into all those different elements of a business and that obviously touches on job design as well”.

Measuring the impact of wellbeing work; have we got the focus wrong?

You need to think about evaluation and measurement at the very start of any wellbeing work, not after, said Sabrina, Council, conceding for many organisations, like her own, this is “really tricky”. She went on to explain the Council largely does this through feedback from employees, both quantitative and qualitative data. 

“But we’re always looking at it in new, innovative ways,” she added. “I’ve got a colleague who’s just started looking at work anniversary surveys, for example. So, each year that someone has been within the organisation, they are able to give personalised feedback to us about the things that have been working for them, and things that haven’t.”

The council is also currently looking at a ‘Wellbeing Index” gathering all performance and engagement data, along with feedback from employees. One of the major objectives of this type of tool is that leaders can see where their teams’ wellbeing sits across the whole, diverse organisation. “We need to be able to support our leaders and our functions to assess themselves against where they are, with our strategic approach, and what good looks like,” she said.

But Aggy Dhillon, Head of International Reward & Wellbeing at Twinings spoke for many when she was honest about the fact that “we do actually struggle to prove ROI”. As she said, theoretically it would be “great” to measure employee wellbeing against Twinning’s wellbeing strategy, which consists of four pillars, but she’s not there yet – as many organisations aren’t. “That’s one to work on for us and honestly an area we’ve struggled a little bit with,” she said. 

Hughes, however, had a completely fresh take on the admittedly “challenging” topic of measurement, telling how a chat with one if his directors had prompted him to have a complete mindset change on measuring wellbeing work:

“ROI is a really interesting concept in this space. This director said to me ‘well, if this work just helps one person, then it’s paid for itself’. And that really changed my mindset because it basically made me look at it from an impact perspective and the difference it makes to people, rather than trying to identify if we get our ‘pounds and pence’ back. Because, ultimately, if our people are well, healthy, able to thrive and perform at their best, we’ll get that return on investment.”

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

The ethics of wellbeing; the wider mission of wellbeing

Building on Hughes’ words about the impact of wellbeing led to a panel discussion on how wellbeing professionals need to bear in mind, not just the ‘pound and pence’, but also the wider societal impact their work is potentially having.

As Sabrina said, the Council’s mission is not necessarily to “look at return on investment” but to look at “how are we really affecting people’s lives?”. It strives to treat its Council residents and employees with the same grace and care. The Council’s whole outlook, including how it treats its staff, is affected by the fact that it’s looking to positively affect lives “from the point someone’s born, right to the end of life”.

She added:

“It’s about embedding wellbeing exactly as we would with our residents. Ultimately, it’s about that end goal of ensuring that our residents have the best possible services delivered by people who are well productive and engaged within their roles.”

Hughes, too, touches on a strong sense of responsibility he feels in his role in wider society, not just within his organisation. For him, what Sabrina touched on here is “fostering a culture of care within organisations and delivering sustainable performance”. With his IOSH presidential hat on he wants to see a “world where organisational success doesn’t come at the expense of the employees”.

But he goes further than that with his calls for the industry to focus on “driving positive societal impacts through good IOSH practices”. Just as the Council views its employees in a similar way to its residents, in terms of striving to deliver them the best experiences, this is also how Hughes views the wellbeing mission of companies:

“We want to get the best out of our people by investing in them, not just a work but beyond work. We want to make sure they’re valuable members of society, make sure they can serve their families, their friends, their loved ones… Working in this industry is a longterm game and you need to think of the ‘compound’ interest that you get over a life cycle as it’s often the small decisions that you make that make a difference.”

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.