Unravelling the worsening wellbeing crisis and charting a path to progress


Breathe CEO Lana Hindmarch unpacks why employees are struggling more now than they did during the pandemic.

Despite the renewed focus and increased investment in workplace wellbeing, employees are struggling more now than they did during the pandemic.

Investment in employee wellbeing has increased, but wellbeing levels remain unacceptably low, with stress and burnout reaching record global highs this year. This has left HR leaders scratching their heads, wondering why we’re still in this rut and how to get out of it.
The answer to this problem is complex and multi-faceted, with various contributing factors at the HR, organisational and individual level.

By observation, some of the major high-level issues are as follows:

1. There’s no accountability

Currently, there is very little accountability for wellbeing, both at an organisational and at an individual level.
Many organisations still have the view that the responsibility for wellbeing still sits with the employee. Yes, organisations are now doing much more to promote wellbeing and this support is well-intentioned and often useful, but it still places the responsibility on the individual. This mindset says wellbeing is about the person, not the organisation.

Considering how rigorous organisations are when it comes to keeping employees safe at work, it doesn’t make sense that there is so little accountability for keeping people healthy. If a railing on the stairs breaks, for example, there’s no doubt it will be repaired overnight. The same degree of rigour, however, is not applied when it comes to keeping employees healthy. This is concerning – because workplaces are in more subtle ways, quite broken right now and this poses a risk of another kind. There is so much stress being caused by the workplace itself, but most organisations are not willing to look in the mirror.

To unravel the wellbeing crisis, organisations have to do more than just support wellbeing at an individual level. They must consider the workplace hazards that are causing the high levels of stress, burnout and mental ill-health in the first place.
But accountability can’t just start and end with the organisation. While everyone is pushing and lobbying for employers to do more and change the workplace, employees are losing sight of what they can do for themselves.

Some companies create perfect conditions for wellbeing, but people still burn out. I believe this is partly because we live in a society that says burnout is simply the price to be paid for success but partly also because sometimes it’s easier to blame the organisation than look at our unhealthy thinking and behaviours. People have lost their internal locus of control and are not taking responsibility for putting on their oxygen masks.

2. Doing wellness TO people

The good news is that unlike before Covid, organisations are now helping employees take better care of themselves – there’s no shortage of fancy apps, wellness sessions, yoga on the lawn and healthy food in the cafeteria.

The bad news, however, is that this approach still puts the responsibility solely on the employee and makes wellbeing a one-way street, and it’s not going to solve the current crisis.

We can’t expect that people will use an app or attend a wellness day or follow a monthly wellness calendar and their wellbeing will improve, if they’re overworked, or feel undervalued and stressed out because they have a toxic manager.

The apps and wellness sessions and fitness classes are what I refer to as doing wellness to people and it’s the second major reason organisations are not making progress on enhancing wellbeing, despite increased focus and investment.

This is a tick-box, on-the-side approach that doesn’t connect to culture or strategy and doesn’t result in any kind of meaningful change.
In some companies, there’s even still a perception that an EAP is a wellbeing solution. But an EAP is a crisis-management solution to support individuals who have already ‘fallen in the river,’ so to speak. It doesn’t empower individuals to take responsibility for their wellbeing and it doesn’t spark the conversations necessary to change unhealthy ways of working and outdated systems and policies.

3. Lack of capability in the HR Function

The tick-box, on-the-side approach is often a symptom of a lack of strategic wellbeing capability and capacity in HR teams. In recent years, HR has been expected to take on so much more, including becoming wellbeing experts. I have deep respect for HR professionals who have stepped up and taken on incredible challenges, more than any other function in the business. But I still see a skills gap around developing and executing an integrated wellbeing strategy.

At the heart of any wellbeing strategy is accurate data and measuring wellbeing properly. Often HR teams rely on the annual engagement survey as their primary source of data. The issue with this is that engagement data and wellbeing data are not the same. An engagement survey measures people’s willingness to go the extra mile, while a wellbeing survey measures people’s ability to go the extra mile. There’s a huge difference.

Even in companies that are gathering wellbeing-specific data, the data is not holistic. It is heartening to see mental wellbeing questions making their way into surveys but still, mental wellbeing is only part of the equation. A survey that doesn’t include questions about an employee’s sense of meaning and purpose, for example, is not holistic. Yet, how an organisation ignites an individual’s sense of purpose is one of the key talent retention factors right now – especially for Gen Z – but this is being overlooked in most surveys.

The challenge is that every team in an organisation is often experiencing something different. One of the mistakes that companies make is rolling out a solution across an organisation without realising that each team is different - one team might have an extremely high workload, another has psychological safety issues.

The lack of quality data and accurate metrics shows up as siloed programming that is not truly holistic in its dimensions, nor representative of the workforce. Usually, there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t meet people where they are or give them the freedom to self-direct their wellbeing journeys.

Because programmes are not based on behaviour science principles, they’re not sustainable and don’t show a return on investment. And then ‘wellness’ gets a bad rap in the boardroom.

What can HR do? Locating the entry point

HR often feels quite powerless to navigate the current storm because of the systemic issues that are getting in the way of wellbeing. And when these issues mostly boil down to poor leadership, it can feel even more daunting.
It is not HR’s job to fix these issues. It is, however, HR’s responsibility to show these issues to top management and get buy-in at the boardroom level on an integrated organisational wellbeing approach.

This buy-in is more likely to happen with a well-thought-out strategy. The starting point for any wellbeing strategy is to gather data and put together a case that’s specific to the organisation.

On the whole, leaders overestimate how employees are feeling. Recent surveys have shown a big disconnect between how well managers think employees are doing versus how poorly they are doing.

So, it’s important to pull out stories that are relevant to what’s happening within an organisation, using whatever data is available, to show why wellbeing is not just important in the global landscape but also to show leaders what employees in their organisation are experiencing. The C-Suite needs to know what it’s like to work in the organisation.

The data should include evidence from exit interviews and quarterly surveys that include wellbeing-specific metrics. It’s important to measure quarterly – this reveals warning signs before it gets to the point of crisis.

I have found the most quality data comes from having real conversations where people feel safe and where a diversity of voices and perspectives can be heard. We always conduct a discovery phase with employees before we embark on strategy development. Facilitating thinking environment-style group conversations, we ask employees questions like, “What in your culture enables wellbeing, and what gets in the way? What behaviours get rewarded? Does your manager drain or fuel your energy?”

It’s during discovery that we truly begin to understand what’s affecting wellbeing. I have never heard an employee say, “We need more wellness sessions or a wellness app.” More often we hear people say things like, “I need my boss to stop emailing me on weekends.”
When it comes to data, it’s important to see trends across the organisation but also team by team, to have a targeted analysis of the root causes of low wellbeing – to see which teams are experiencing high levels of burnout, for example, where people are feeling micromanaged, which teams are working always-on, which teams have unsupportive managers, where there are low levels of trust and safety, and so on.

Having the right measurements in place, with the right questions, will help leaders understand exactly how the issues shake out across the entire organisation, and also team by team. This is a big step forward in the journey to removing the obstacles that get in the way of wellbeing, and rethinking our approach to work.

Unlocking the future of wellbeing

The past few years have made it clear that we need to reimagine wellbeing. This is a pivotal moment for workplaces. It shouldn’t be that work gets in the way of wellbeing. Work should ignite our purpose and make us excited and want to show up as the best version of ourselves, and every person in the organisation should play a role in making that happen.

The integrated, strategic route is a slower process than the instant, tick-box approach. But considering it took decades to get us into this mess, we’re not going to solve it overnight. And perhaps a more tentative, considered approach, with more breathing space, that invites all voices, might reveal an opportunity to create a healthier, more vibrant blueprint for the next generation.


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