Tech companies are known for their generous employee perks: free snacks, nap pods, the now-obligatory office ping-pong table. As the conversation around workplace culture has moved to focus on wellness, so too have many of these benefits; it’s not unusual to hear of companies offering mindfulness or yoga sessions, meditation rooms or therapy puppies.
But while usually well-meaning, these initiatives may not be quite the mood-boost some companies seem to think. It’s all very well offering extra-curricular opportunities to staff, but if your broader workplace culture is lacking on the basics, these attempts at forced wellbeing may fall flat or even backfire.
“It does need to be very carefully handled,” says Gail Kinman, a professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. “Wellbeing at work needs to be seen in a much more systemic way. Employers have a duty of care to protect the wellbeing of their staff: jobs shouldn’t be overly stressful, overly demanding; people need to have breaks. You have to have those things in place, and then if you introduce more individually-focused wellness initiatives, they’re much more likely to work.”
“Otherwise people can end up being really skeptical – like, ‘I worked 60 hours last week and you say you’re putting on a Bollywood dance session at lunchtime.’”
Basically: if your workforce is stressed enough that you think they need therapy puppies, you’ve probably got more work to do than just organising a drop-in petting session. Laurie Heselden, regional policy and campaigns officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a federation of 50 affiliated workers’ unions in England and Wales, says that wellness initiatives can only be the cherry on the top of a workplace that’s already working well.
“I don’t want to be a killjoy about wellness,” he says. “We’re not killjoys in the trade union movement – we invented, if you like, social clubs, work sports teams, day trips to the beach, workers’ libraries […]. But wellness initiatives can only ever be built on top of very solid work about protecting safety at work and building a healthy workplace.”
On a most basic level, this means making sure the workplace is a protected environment that meets health and safety requirements. As for workplace culture, Heselden says that keeping workers happy means making sure they feel recognised and valued, and have an element of control over their own job – they’re “not just a cog in a machine.”
When it comes to individual wellness initiatives, Kinman emphasises the need to take different people’s preferences into account, noting that one person’s idea of happiness is another’s hell. One person might love the idea of a mindfulness session; another might prefer to join a book club or take part in a team sport. For the same reason, wellness “perks” should always be optional – if you’re dragging someone who cringes at the thought of doing yoga poses and chanting positive mantras to an enforced wellness retreat, this is unlikely to have the intended benefits.
Employers should also make sure their wellness efforts are inclusive. A paid company ski trip might sound like an incredible perk, but it may exclude people who have a disability that prevents them from taking part, have care responsibilities that mean they can’t take time outside of regular working hours, or who simply just don’t like that kind of thing (personally, no one will ever convince me that a work holiday, paid or not, is really a holiday at all). “It is possible that a wellness initiative is being used to develop a kind of culture, and that culture leaves some people behind,” says Heselden.
Then there are the apparent employee benefits that seem downright cynical. It might be nice to have a gym on-site, or a hairdresser, or a supermarket, but are these conveniences really provided with employees’ best interests at heart, or could they in fact be a way of encouraging people to stay at work longer? Similarly, the prospect of “unlimited holiday” – offered by companies such as Netflix and Dropbox – sounds amazing but can result in employees taking less time off owing to uncertainty around expectations over how much time they’re actually supposed to take.
And some attempts to look out for worker wellness can risk overstepping a bit too much into people’s personal lives, especially if they concern health behaviours like diet or exercise. “It’s fine to make information available, but you need to be careful about not being too preachy,” says Kinman.
It’s hard to tell whether, for all the current talk around wellness, workers are actually happier than previous generations. Heselden says it’s impossible to compare, given shifts in the workforce. There are fewer physically dangerous jobs today than in the past, for example, but work-related stress appears to be on the rise. There’s also a huge variation in experiences when it comes to the modern workplace. Even within one company, there can be a range: someone working at Amazon HQ will likely have a very different experience to someone working in an Amazon fulfilment centre. Gig economy work and zero-hours contracts present particular challenges; the lack of secure hours can lead to anxiety, stress and poor health.
And for most of us, the promise of technology to increase workplace productivity hasn’t resulted – as once assumed – in less stress and shorter working hours; instead, studies suggest we’re working harder than ever, and thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and laptops, we now often feel as if we’re always on call.
Indeed, the current focus on wellness initiatives can sometimes feel like just more added pressure on workers who already feel overstretched. Not only are we expected to keep up with the demands of a challenging workplace – now we’re expected to be constantly, energetically, demonstrably happy about it too. Is it not enough just to do a good job and get paid?
The most important thing to get right when it comes to harbouring a happy workforce in any situation is management. The most common complaint the TUC hears about, says Heselden, is not about pay or working hours but bullying and harassment.
Emma Donaldson-Feilder, an occupational psychologist at Affinity Health at Work, says the problem is that people are often given management responsibilities because they proved themselves good at a particular task, not necessarily managing people. People often leave their workplace, she says, because of a poor relationship with their line manager.
She welcomes wellness initiatives so long as they are provided in consultation with the workforce to meet their needs. “But that doesn’t mean you can then have a toxic culture, total work overload, bullying managers, no sense of leadership and direction, and think it’s all going to be fine.”
If employers steam ahead with Mindfulness Mondays and Free Fruit Fridays without sorting out those fundamentals, “wellness” is unlikely to translate into actual happiness.
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