Well-being: why we need a shift in corporate mindsets

Kate Field (CMIOSH), BSI’s Global Head, Health, Safety and Well-being, explores the link between well-being in the workplace and the need for a more profound cultural shift.

While there has been significant interest in the concept of well-being over the past few decades, there is no single approach to workplace well-being. That’s where BSI’s new Prioritizing People© model enters the picture.

Our model takes inspiration from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, setting out a pathway that starts with individuals’ physiological needs, then moves through safety, belonging, esteem and finally to actualization.

Many populations, particularly those in high income countries, are moving up the hierarchy. People’s basic physiological needs are met – food, water, shelter etc. State health, education and benefit systems and increased employment mean that Maslow’s safety needs are accessible to more people.

According to Maslow, it is human nature to strive to move up the hierarchy: “Human life will never be understood unless its highest aspirations are taken into account. Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving “upward”) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency.”
(Maslow, 1954, Motivation and Personality, pp.xii-xiii)

It is no surprise then that many of the definitions of well-being identify that it is about more than physical health; it’s about how we feel: our expectations and sense of fulfilment. This is seen in the most recent definition of well-being at work from the new international standard on psychological health and safety at work, ISO 45003: “Fulfilment of the physical, mental and cognitive needs and expectations of a worker related to their work.”

Whilst workplace well-being programmes vary from organization to organization, common themes appear:

  • “Yogurt and yoga” initiatives to promote healthy eating and physical exercise
  • Mental resilience training
  • Mental health first aiders
  • Diversity and inclusion committees
  • Employee assistance programmes (EAP) offering lifestyle guidance on subjects such as sleep, debt and relationships
  • Volunteering and other community engagement activities
  • Learning hubs and coaching programmes

During the first year or two of workplace well-being programmes, positive effects can be seen; some workers lose weight or stop smoking; employee engagement scores improve; EAP take-up rates go up; maybe even retention and absence rates improve.

However, over time momentum is lost and there is growing evidence that many workplace well-being programmes do not deliver measurable benefits . There are several reasons for this. Health initiatives such as smoking cessation need to be run over 3-5 years (not just Stoptober); resilience training and mental health first aiders focus on mitigation not prevention; the unconscious bias of white privilege undermines many diversity and inclusion initiatives; workers are not given time for learning and development; functional teams such as health and safety or human resources work in isolation rather than together, even though they are both looking at ‘people’.

However, the primary reason that the well-being flame flickers and eventually goes out is that organizations often approach them as ‘initiatives’ – a sticking plaster over the deeper wounds of low trust. They are unwilling to commit to a significant cultural shift to build trust and take a strategic, long-term approach to prioritizing their people.

To create a true culture of trust, organizations need to focus on:

  • Collaborative, communicative, emotionally intelligent leadership
  • Diverse, inclusive, and ethical workplace relationships based on respect and fairness
  • Opportunities for lifelong learning and employability
  • A balanced effort and reward ratio
  • Work and workplaces that prevent physical and mental harm and promote good physical and psychological health
  • Creating workplace and community social capital

Existing models on workplace well-being such as the WHO Healthy Workplace, ILO Solve, and Total Worker Health touch on elements of this, and studies and reports such as ‘Thriving at work’ and ‘Is work good for health and well-being?’ draw out additional points, each looks through a specific lens, not holistically and carries unconscious bias – and, most importantly, none consider the linkages between people and resilient organizations.

BSI’s Prioritizing People Model© has been created to close any gaps and provide a holistic view of challenges, considering the elements required for resilient organizations.

Find out more by downloading the prioritizing people whitepaper.