Some employees are just surviving. Wellbeing must be a top priority
Leading future-of-work researcher explains how changing expectations are impacting how we think of workplace wellness. Libby Sander says employers need to avoid the trap of paying lip service to wellness without examining company culture.
Libby Sander is an internationally renowned expert on work and the workplace, the MBA Director and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University. She is interested in how we can reimagine work to live more meaningful and creative lives. She has spoken at TEDx, is an Agenda Contributor at the World Economic Forum, and this November at HR + L&D Innovation & Tech Fest, Libby will address Surviving to Thriving: Employee Wellbeing in a New Landscape of Work.
What is it about the future of work and reimagining it that interests you?
Libby Sander: There’s a lot of talk at the moment of the future of work and how we should do things differently and what's happened since COVID, but for me, it is important to take this opportunity to genuinely look at how we can do things differently. There are so many things that we do that are unnecessary, that are contributing to poor mental and physical health, that are contributing to poor relationship outcomes and performance outcomes for the organisation. We’ve just been doing it the same way for so long.
Can you tell us about your research?
LS: My research looks at the physical work environment as the lens. Then, through that we look at its impact - whether it be working from home, working in an office, working in a co-working space or some combination of those - and then does it affect our physical and mental wellbeing and performance? How does it affect organisational outcomes like collaboration and performance and how it is an interrelated system. It also includes culture and leadership and the design of the job itself. It’s fascinating and we haven't really done a great job historically at looking at the interrelationship of those things and understanding just how much our physical environment impacts us.
How do you define employee wellbeing - what does it encapsulate?
LS: If we think about employee wellbeing, it's not just ‘are you not feeling sick? … are you feeling capable of doing your job?’ We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about presenteeism - how many companies are pressuring people to come back to the office just for that base time – that is very relevant. We know that being at work and not feeling at your best has significant implications. So, when we talk about wellbeing, we're talking about the entire person and everything that contributes to them being able to be at their best. So, it's physical, it's mental, it's social, it's emotional.
Is employee wellbeing – both the concept of it and the focus on it - different now than before the pandemic? And for that matter, are employee wellbeing needs different?
LS: When we look at wellbeing, we should be asking are our employees thriving at work, not just surviving. This was important even before the pandemic, but the pandemic has made it worse. A lot of employees are just surviving at work. We have the stress and the pressure that we had beforehand, which might be bad job design, poor culture, poor leadership, unrealistic expectations of the job. And then we put a pandemic on top of that, and people's mental wellbeing is lower. Stress is a lot higher. Anxiety is a lot higher and general satisfaction with life in a lot of ways has been lowered during the pandemic for a host of reasons.
People have said, ‘I don't want to live this way anymore. I don't want to commute for two hours a day. I don't want to work 10 hours a day in an office. I want to spend more time with my family.’ They're looking more holistically at their life. It’s not just job title and salary that is a definition of success. Now it's also physical and mental health, other interests, and the amount of time they spend on them and with loved ones.
In a lot of cases, this is falling on HR and line managers to address. Is it realistic to expect these positions to take on the onus of employee wellbeing?
LS: Employee wellbeing is not just a HR issue. It can't just be delegated to some parts of the organisation. It has to be embedded in the culture of the organisation. We often see a disconnect between what we say and what we do. We value employee wellbeing - we give you massages, unlimited annual leave - but actually we have this expectation around face time in the office or the number of hours you're working, or we have a manager that's dysfunctional and yet that's not being addressed. It’s not fair to put all of that onto a single role or a single department. It has to be a concerted, genuine effort by the entire organisation, particularly championed from that executive level and by the CEO.
Are there any red flags when it comes to workplace culture that might indicate it is lacking in its capacity to look out for employee wellbeing?
LS: Yes - we see in cultures where wellbeing is paid lip service with offers and freedoms, yet on the other side, it's not possible for employees even to take barely any annual leave because the expectations of their job are so high because they haven't hired enough people to do the work that's required and within a culture that is quite toxic or super competitive. So, for people to advance, they can't actually take advantage of these initiatives and we have to look at all of these metrics and all of these systems across the organisation and to say, is this a genuine effort or is it just a few token things and what we really value is money.
So, are your employees surviving or thriving? Does your culture align with your wellness initiatives? During this time of high anxiety and great resignation, it has never been more crucial to map out ways to help your people feel more supported, valued and satisfied in their jobs.
Don’t miss Libby Sander at HR + L&D Innovation & Tech Fest on 8-9 November at ICC Sydney.
Check out this 30 second video as Libby reveals what to expect from her Tech Fest talk.