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Employee wellbeing – a key factor in organisational resilience

Ebony Hughes

I think it’s fair to say that most of us have learnt a great deal about wellbeing over the last year. I for one have a clearer idea of what makes me thrive rather than just survive, and I know that it has become a priority agenda item for council Chief Executives and their senior teams. Recent conversations I’ve had reflect an ambition not just to ride out (and ultimately recover from) the pandemic, but to think differently about employee wellbeing and its intrinsic link to delivering organisational objectives.  A commitment to employee wellbeing is key to becoming a more resilient organisation that is able to manage effectively within complex systems.

We already knew before the pandemic that the wellbeing of the workforce is crucial; take the example of children’s services. When there is a stable and motivated workforce that isn’t overstretched, the quality of practice and the outcomes achieved tend to be strong. But for those authorities battling with an improvement mandate, one of the fundamental challenges is always to create a workforce that will stay and has the capacity to support the improvement.

A recent survey by LocalGov highlighted that 64% of respondents said the pandemic has affected their mental health, with 75% feeling stressed and 65% feeling anxious.  Concerningly, nearly half (47%) of those affected also said they have felt depressed in the last year.  This resonates strongly with findings from our own work on organisational resilience. This has highlighted that many senior managers are suffering from ‘adrenal exhaustion’ – the cumulative effect of being in crisis mode for many months.

Additionally, research by Qlearsite (an employee research company we are working in partnership with) suggests that men and women may experience these issues differently, with it being more socially acceptable for women to talk about mental health issues.  Also, very worryingly, with recent global events in addition to the COVID lockdown, BAME wellbeing has been highlighted as being particularly affected.

Qlearsite research also highlighted how remote working has resulted in employees taking fewer sick days.  Aligned to this, in our resilience research, a common theme emerged – ‘willingness trumping wellbeing’. While this is a positive reflection of the commitment of local authority employees to their residents and colleagues, the challenge for leaders is to harness this connection to purpose without allowing it to have an overall detrimental impact.  Some local authorities reflected that while asking employees to stop (to prevent willingness trumping wellbeing) is one thing, ensuring this happens is a much bigger challenge, especially when the individuals themselves may thoroughly resent the intervention.

A recent article in the New York Times series on resilience provided a helpful analogy: “Asking sled dogs to pace themselves, to slow it down, is like asking a retriever to only fetch one ball out of three: It goes against their every instinct.”

Our work on resilience has highlighted to us how those that had invested in and nurtured wellbeing were better equipped to manage in the pandemic. It also showed how wellbeing has risen up the agenda to become a consistent theme, and is now informing new ways of working. But how can an organisation as large and diverse as a local authority understand the wellbeing of its workforce?  One Senior Director reflected to me that there are many ways to support individuals as there are individuals and we need to recognise that diversity.

Aligned to our resilience framework, Qlearsite’s model of wellbeing talks about a person’s overall wellbeing being made up of four facets – physical, mental, emotional wellbeing and connectedness.  They suggest that paying attention to how organisations and individual managers support their employees along these four dimensions will have a huge impact on their employee’s wellbeing.

The need for a well workforce is more important than ever, but making this a reality will require breaking some organisational bad habits and committed leadership on this issue. Below we set out recommendations for authorities which are moving to shape their new ways of working:

  • Embed mechanisms to truly understand the wellbeing of the workforce as part of standard practice. Do this consistently at regular intervals, and ensure you are ready not just to measure but to listen and act.
  • Support managers to understand wellbeing and what that means for their teams, and enable them to manage effectively, including remotely.
  • Create an environment where you role model taking care of your wellbeing. Some organisations have created specific roles to support the wellbeing agenda
  • Recognise and embrace the diversity in individuals’ approaches to wellbeing
  • Connect with the motivations of your staff, this may be the challenge that kept them working at full pace but is also at the heart of their fulfilment (the LocalGov survey referenced above also found that 27% of staff said that they were more passionate than ever about working in the sector)
  • Be prepared to stop activity and enforce this when required to prioritise.

Upcoming event – I’ll be speaking as part of a Qlearsite webinar on Wellbeing at work on Tuesday 11th May at 1pm.  Do join us!

Written by

Ebony Hughes

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