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Beyond Buzzwords: A Closer Look At Workplace Wellbeing
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the atmosphere around workplace wellbeing has shifted. Bosses are now talking about mental health, throwing in perks like meditation apps, mindfulness gigs and mental health campaigns. But hey, relying on these goodies will put us in a good headspace at work right? Not quite!
03 February, 2024

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, the atmosphere around workplace wellbeing has shifted. Bosses are now talking about mental health, throwing in perks like meditation apps, mindfulness gigs and mental health campaigns. But hey, relying on these goodies will put us in a good headspace at work right? Not quite! The pandemic shook up the workplace, bringing challenges like hybrid working and financial uncertainties. These often tedious changes can change our mental well-being both at home and in the workplace. 

Over the past ten years, global mental health issues have spiked by 13%, says, the World Health Organisation. In England, it’s tough, 1 in 4 people face mental health problems yearly and 1 in 6 deal with it weekly. A recent AXA UK report revealed, that almost half of UK workers are ‘running on empty’ dealing with mental health issues and work stress resulting in a whopping £28 billion annual hit to the economy and a staggering 23.3 million days off work. Companies are trying, with serious cash being pumped into corporate well-being globally, set to double from $50 billion in 2022 to $100 billion by 2030. But here’s the real deal: only 51% feel comfortable talking about mental health and just 57% feel they are getting the support they need. Clearly, throwing cash at the situation is not hitting the mark. 

Statistics are great; but what do experts have to say? I had the pleasure of chatting with Dr Myanna Duncan over Microsoft Teams, a chartered occupational psychologist and a senior organisational psychology lecturer at King’s College London. 

Myanna’s interest in organisational psychology started after a talk from a business psychologist. She believes, ‘People are going to be working for the rest of their lives; we can apply psychology in the workplace. Let’s make the workplace a better space.’ 

Companies may have better well-being awareness in comparison to 20 years ago, but Myanna calls them out on ‘wellness washing.’ She feels sometimes that companies talk a big game about mental health but are solely doing it for the PR. So what actually is workplace wellbeing? Myanna says, ‘Workplace wellbeing is looking after employees throughout their career and supporting them through all life changes.’ 

How can companies level up then? Myanna argues, ‘It is all about choice.’ Forcing people into things is a recipe for disaster, breeding bitterness, resentment and unproductivity, a fast track to the exit door. Even in 2023, bad bosses can make your work life a living nightmare, no matter where you are (we’ve all had our share of horrible bosses, right?). Micromanaging is just not cool anymore. What’s crucial is solid management training for this post-pandemic era. CEOs and founders, it’s time to equip your managers with the toolkit needed to tackle these new challenges. 

With the new hybrid models, the rigid 9-5 office grind is a thing of the past. Mental and physical health are important, but caring for them doesn’t require mandatory workout classes or midday runs. It’s just about appreciating how amazing a 45-minute break is, whenever it suits you, and having the freedom to decide for yourself. Trusting people to set boundaries and to make their own decisions increases productivity. On the social front, companies should offer team support, while giving people the choice to join away days instead of making them compulsory. Consider this: someone opts to pick up their kids at 3 pm, relaxes until 6 pm, when the little ones go to bed, then gets back into work from 6-9 pm. Having the downtime helps them adapt because, let’s face it, one-size-fits-all doesn’t cut it for anyone. 

As things are changing rapidly, to assess and update their methods, companies should frequently ask their employees what is working for them, and what they would like to see. Myanna says, ‘It’s important to know what people are saying.’ Trends like ‘mindfulness’ come and go but if they don’t resonate with the team, there’s no point! She adds, ‘What was happening five years ago is redundant now, companies need to constantly review and involve staff continuously.’ 

What does the research suggest? When it comes to mental health interventions in the workplace there are three angles: primary, making structural changes to prevent illness (this is what Myanna suggests!); secondary, involving wellness schemes for existing health problems (this is what companies are currently doing!); and tertiary, focusing on rehab for long term illnesses (this is what employee health can lead to if well being is not prioritised). Myanna suggests companies should lean towards primary changes like revamping the workplace layout for a more holistic well-being approach. One effective strategy is to create designated ‘wellness zones’ within the office space. These wellness zones could include comfortable seating areas with natural lighting, indoor plants, and calming decor. In these zones, employees can take short breaks, practice mindfulness exercises, or simply just relax.

Looking ahead, Myanna predicts a backlash against ‘wellness washing.’ In the years to come, virtual workspaces could shake up the traditional idea of being physically present at work, bringing different opportunities and challenges. With AI getting smarter, workplace well-being will evolve too, but it needs to be handled carefully to avoid tricky situations, like introducing AI policies. AI can be harnessed to analyze employee data and detect patterns related to stress, burnout, and work-related challenges. For instance, if an AI system identifies signs of increased stress levels or potential burnout, it can alert both the employee and the employer, allowing for timely interventions. She then argues that future research must investigate how AI’s power might further change the job scene and impact mental health as unemployment rates increase. This proves that organisations need to stay agile and responsive in this ever-changing work landscape. They must create workplaces where people can thrive and take a holistic and evolving approach. 

Edited by Daniel Williams and Fathima Jaffar

Kanak Gupta
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