Workplace wellbeing: recommendations for policy-makers and HR professionals

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Workplace wellbeing: recommendations for policy-makers and HR professionals

The THRIVE@WORK project aims to promote stress prevention and well-being at work by encouraging Human Resources professionals, Vocational Education and Training trainers, CEOs and owners of companies to dedicate resources and invest in programmes for the psychosocial well-being of their staff. The project partnership consists of five EU countries: Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Bulgaria. Within the framework of the research on workplace well-being conducted by the THRIVE@WORK Project Consortium, project partners have found that, despite existing good practices, management of workplace well-being is generally not embedded in Human Resources policies in organizations, nor is it supported by national policies, especially in SMEs.

Although the EU supports and promotes the wellbeing approach, it is then up to each single organization in each Member State to adopt this notion and to create such policies (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2013). These skills and strategies related to workplace wellbeing are not usually adopted by companies or in-company VET trainers, even though most of them are extremely simple; for this reason, developing a compact source of information to impart the knowledge of the HR community in Europe is today crucial and necessary.

According to the gaps emerged, the THRIVE@WORK project consortium has provided workplace wellbeing policy recommendations for policy-makers and decision-makers at government level (e.g. national and EU MPs, Chambers of Commerce, Employers’ Associations, social partners, Trade Unions, Ministries of Labour and National HR Associations), as well as for HR professionals/managers who wish to apply such policies in their organizations. The following workplace wellbeing policy recommendations focus specifically on psychosocial wellbeing.

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Policy recommendation 1: Support the “front line”

One of the main challenges organizations face in implementing workplace wellbeing practices involves the lack of line managers commitment, capability, knowledge and skills in supporting employees’ wellbeing. It is with no doubt that managers have a vital role to play in influencing employees’ experience at work and feelings associated with these experiences. It is also within their control to create a positive supportive environment to enable people to thrive and feel that they can be understood and receive the support and guidance they need when they are feeling unwell or struggling with their wellbeing. However, too many organizations are not providing the support and training needed to ensure managers have the confidence and capability to do this job significantly. As such, support and guidance need to be provided to ensure managers have the right skills to support staff, but that they are also looking after their own wellbeing. For example, each organization could consider having a ‘wellbeing first aid manager’ who would undergo specific training on how to provide comfort to colleagues who may be experiencing poor mental health (e.g. stress) and guide/encourage them to receive help from a mental health professional.

Policy recommendation 2: Encourage empathetic management and leadership

Organizations that wish to thrive by safeguarding their employees’ psychosocial wellbeing need to hire and/or develop more effective managers and leaders. This requires looking beyond traditional strategies for management development and cultivating the skills most important for success. One of those skills is empathy – a skill that has been considered as a vital leadership competency. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. Empathy is also a very important factor in promoting wellbeing because it is linked to relationships/ social wellbeing. Demonstrating empathy in the workplace can improve social interactions in general, and lead to more effective communication and a positive organizational culture. This in turn will lead to more positive outcomes on an individual and workplace level.

Policy recommendation 3: Access to Employee Assistant programmers and counselling services

Employees often struggle with deeper issues or might be going through a crisis. Although managers or co-workers might have the intentions to support them, they might simply not know how. Therefore, managers can refer employees to counselling services when they feel that they cannot help them with a deeper mental health issue. Providing employees with free access to counselling services can give them the chance to speak up and be honest about their wellbeing in a safe environment and receive the help they need. It goes without saying that one does not need to be in a crisis to go to therapy. Knowing that counselling services is a free option provides employees with security. That knowledge in itself – knowing that it is possible to talk issues out with a specialist – can help reduce employee stress.

Policy recommendation 4: Recognize that workplace stress is a health and safety issue

Workplace stress is a major risk factor for employees’ wellbeing. A number of factors can lead to workplace stress including unrealistic expectations, tight deadlines, heavy workloads, long hours, job insecurity and conflict with co-workers and managers. Stress can have a toll on employees’ physical and mental wellbeing, and if left untreated it can lead to burnout. The financial cost of stress in organizations is also well documented in the literature. This highlights the need for a proactive approach and preventive interventions where organizations identify workplace stress factors, evaluate employees’ well-being and carry out risk assessments of the business. This approach allows organizations to take steps prior to the occurrence of anticipated stressful situations. Such a policy could also incorporate training in good management practices (e.g., set realistic targets and deadlines for staff to prevent long working hours) for all management levels. Through this training managers could receive resources, knowledge and skills on how to identify stress factors and how to effectively deal with them.

Policy recommendation 5: Creating a supportive workplace environment

A supportive work environment is crucial to creating a productive organization and increasing employee well-being. Thus, organizations need to be encouraged to offer employees flexible benefits that they really need (e.g. flexible working hours, supportive family policies), as such benefits demonstrate the organization’s concern for employees. Required or commonly available benefits (e.g. health insurance, retirement plans) contribute little to the perception of organizational support. Moreover, organizations can take steps in increasing the presence of enriching job characteristics, which signal to employees that the organization cares about their well-being. These include meaningful work tasks, the opportunity to work autonomously and occasions to participate in organizational decision-making. Leaders need to be informed about the factors and skills that contribute to workplace wellbeing, such as strengths-based feedback, positive emotions, recognition of achievements and effort, sense of meaning and purpose at work etc. Finally, organizations can create a supportive workplace environment and positive organizational culture by showing recognition but also appreciation to its employees. By recognizing one’s contributions and qualities can increase their motivation, commitment and loyalty to the organization, but most importantly it can increase one’s well-being.

Policy recommendation 6: Boost employee willingness to participate in workplace wellbeing practices

Organizations that wish to implement successful wellbeing initiatives/actions in their organizations will first need to ensure that those who will benefit from them have a good understanding of well-being needs and offerings, but most importantly will be free of any fear of being stigmatized. As a first step HR professionals will need to take steps in reducing the prevailing stigma on mental and emotional health. This could be achieved through creating a safe working environment where employees can freely express their struggles and experiences without fear of being judged. The importance of managers in this cannot be overstated; managers need to feel empowered to discuss personal well-being topics with their team, even proactively. This could eventually let employees know that it is okay to not be okay and give them that “permission” to share their mental health and well-being concerns – minimizing stigma. HR professionals will also need to assist employees in becoming aware of their own wellbeing needs, and make it clear to them how the organization’s wellbeing practices can help them. These actions are critical to lending credibility to participating in well-being programs.

The Thrive@Work project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.