Has the cult of workplace wellbeing run its course?

Forget mindfulness apps and fresh fruit Fridays. If we really care about employee wellbeing, we need to rethink job design and work culture, says VALA CEO Pete Trainor.

by Pete Trainor
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2020

It’s been hard to ignore the buzz around employee wellbeing over the last few years, with influencers evangelising on social media and corporate event stages, and with stencilled affirmations and flyers for wellbeing programmes becoming the norm on office walls around the world.

But as staff got offered more workshops, quiet rooms with bean bags, nurturing chats and healthier snack options, have we all really got what we hoped for - happier heads? Or is it merely papering over a much more serious problem requiring a much more serious fix?

The cult of 'Wellbeing in the Workplace' is not just ineffective, but deeply insulting to anybody who suffers from a mental health complication. Staff don't need meditation and yoga, they need complete business reform. Creating human-focused change requires businesses to acknowledge that the triggers for many mental health complications and for unhappiness are in fact deep-rooted in the very job-roles themselves.

The always-on hours people feel expected to work. The bombardment of late-night requests that need an answer ASAP. Uncertainty and security. What about the fact that work comes on holiday with us via our phones? We're never quite present anymore; we're always in the office even when we're out of the office. It was also recently suggested that people are spending two more hours a day connected to work than we were before smartphones

Workplace wellbeing is a nice buzzword, but dig to the bottom of the free muesli, and meat-free Mondays, and it's easy to see that we got sold a short-term fix.

Modifying policies, at scale, is hard and expensive. It's systemic within working culture, and we all need to wake up and see that businesses can't keep doing things better, they need to do better things. 

Spending a bit of money on wellbeing initiatives, or deploying an app-based virtual coach (oh, the irony of app-based wellbeing initiatives...) is cheaper than completely overhauling the way we think about work. One requires staff themselves to be responsible for their mental health by signing up to workshops, logging their mood in an app, or going vegan once a week. The other requires wholesale structural support that simply does not exist in today's hyper-connected roles.

If the last decade saw businesses acknowledge the problem, in this decade they need to step up and fix it with structured support from qualified mental health professionals and solid blocks of uninterrupted time off — not meditation and an unlimited supply of fresh fruit. When we redesign the corporate norm, only then will we start to see real societal change at home and work. 

Incidentally, if you're interested in how to measure actual 'wellbeing' (whatever it means), and you want to help your company apply that to the workplace, have a look at the data collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has been trying to measure the mood of the nation

It's an impressive attempt to quantify the drivers behind what makes society happy. The results have been organised into a dashboard of people's assessments of their own quality of life and experiences. Funnily enough, you'll find there's no mention of workplace yoga, meditation or chill-out-spaces in there.

Pete Trainor is CEO of VALA Health

Image credit: Anthony Weller/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


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