Employee Health and Wellbeing – Creating a Culture of Health

Wednesday 10 October 2018 is World Mental Health Day; an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and tackle the stigma associated with mental illness. This week, organisations across the globe are running campaigns to promote their programmes for supporting employee health and wellbeing. The press and social media are full of reports on the negative impact of poor mental health, and stories of initiatives being launched and people being honoured. Two stories in particular caught my eye, because they illustrate two fundamentally different approaches companies are taking to promote ‘wellness’ within their organisations.

The first concerns the launch of the Mindful Business charter, drawn up by a number of banks and law firms in the City of London. The charter sets out a shared agenda for supporting mental health and wellbeing, and includes a laudable commitment to improve “communication, respect [and] working hours and [ensure a] considerate delegation of tasks.” Actions to be encouraged include discussing preferred working patterns, encouraging dialling in to meetings rather than expecting participants to attend in person, and being clear that emails sent late at night or at weekends do not need to be read immediately.

Research shows that the legal profession in particular has a problem with mental health: a shocking 39% of trainees who responded to a Law Society survey reported experiencing a mental health issue, up from 19% in 2017. Efforts to promote mental health are stymied by a working culture where long hours are routine, all-nighters are common, deadlines are unrealistic, and partners take pride in putting trainees through the same experiences they had of being ‘beasted’ by excessive workloads. My own experience of working in a City firm was of an ingrained culture of presenteeism, excessive hours and intolerance of flexibility.

CRF’s research Employee Health and Wellbeing – whose responsibility is it? found that the most effective employers did not rely on gimmicks or empty rhetoric, but focused on developing a ‘culture of health’, characterised by:

  • senior leaders and line managers who are engaged in and committed to the health and wellbeing of their staff;
  • a work environment that promotes good quality work, gives people sufficient control over their work, and builds a physical environment that’s conducive to health;
  • a climate of open, honest communication, particularly around ‘taboo’ subjects such as mental health;
  • investment in programmes that support sustained behaviour change, not one-offs; and
  • clear measurable targets, ongoing monitoring and regular evaluation of outcomes.

So, what are the chances of the Mindful Business charter leading to lasting change in the legal profession? Unless firms follow through with tangible actions such as setting targets, training managers, implementing and enforcing changes to policies, monitoring results, and visibly tackling bad behaviour, signing up to the charter risks looking like little more than window dressing.

The second story that caught my eye this week sets out a different approach. A book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson, who run a Chicago-based software company called Basecamp, argues that it is perfectly possible to run a business that consistently grows profits, without requiring employees to work madly long hours. Basecamp operates on a 40-hour week, reducing to 32 hours over 4 days in the summer. Employees are also entitled to a month-long sabbatical every three years and significantly more holiday time than most of corporate America.

Basecamp has also designed its physical office environment to tackle one of the causes of excessive working hours – constant interruptions in an open-plan working environment. ‘Library rules’ are applied in the office, so conversations must be kept to a whisper or moved to a separate room. It has also created a culture that dissuades employees from expecting that colleagues deal with non-urgent queries straight away. They reason that an immediate response is unrealistic in the majority of situations, and allowing workers more time means they will come up with a better, more considered answer. The culture is popular with employees: the company was voted one of America’s best small companies in 2017 by Forbes magazine.

Such strategies may be quirky and difficult to deploy at scale in large multinational organisations. However, a successful health and wellbeing strategy needs to go deeper than just setting out a series of platitudes and take action to address the habitual behaviours that define how the organisation culture actually plays out in the day-to-day experience of employees.

For more information about CRF’s research Employee Health & Wellbeing – Whose Responsibility Is It?, download the executive summary here, or the full report here.

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