Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor warns against tokenistic wellbeing practices and explains how company culture can hide harm in plain sight.
Workplace wellbeing is talked about so much that it can often sound like a buzzword. Every employer seems to acknowledge it as a concept – and many claim to have it embedded in their culture – but whether or not they know what really creates a positive wellbeing culture in the workplace remains to be seen.
Last year, psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor spoke at a virtual conference run by CIPD Ireland, where he discussed the tokenism that so often takes over when employers try to include wellbeing in their culture.
“If you have yoga from one to two o’clock and your staff is facing a deadline at ten past two, then everyone is spending that hour worrying about that deadline,” he said.
In an interview with SiliconRepublic.com, Noctor expanded further on his point and said he’s not sure workplaces understand what contributes to our mental wellbeing and what compromises it.
“The issue I have with token gestures is that companies can sometimes view wellbeing as a tick-box exercise and a committee of employees decide that yoga is good for wellbeing so let’s put on yoga at lunchtime. But what happens is you have a group of employees reluctantly giving up their lunch to attend compulsory yoga and all the while they are worried about that assignment deadline that needs to be in by 2pm,” he said.
“We can’t have cultures that are high demand and cut throat when it comes to expectations of employees and throw in a fruit basket and a free water bottle every month and say that’s our wellbeing commitments met.”
As with every aspect of a company’s culture, it must be deeply rooted in how it feels to work in an organisation. Anything such as token gestures, inclusivity mantras written on an office wall or a Pride logo in the window every June mean nothing if there is no genuine work going underneath to make employees feel these things.
As Noctor said, a genuine atmosphere where wellbeing is respected will be a company “where if people are struggling, they are encouraged to bring that to someone’s attention who will authentically respond in a supportive way to their needs.”
‘Managers are not therapists’
This is not to say that an office fruit basket or the option of yoga are bad things. But they cannot be an employer’s only way of addressing workplace wellbeing and in fact, should be seen as one of the last pieces of the puzzle.
Far more important is that need for employees to feel listened to, to feel like they can come to their managers or their HR team if they are struggling.
However, Noctor said there can also be a danger of going in the other direction. “Managers are not therapists, and nor should they expect to be. However, I know many people working in HR who are fast becoming experts on all kinds of mental health challenges,” he said.
“The dial will always flip too far in another direction before it finds its level. We have come from a place where the stigma of mental health meant it was never mentioned and was driven underground, to a place where people cannot be sad without being depressed and cannot be worried without describing themselves as anxious.
Anxiety and depression are very specific conditions that sometimes can be diluted into the discontent of everyday life. It is not the managers responsibility to make these distinctions, yet I think in many ways they are being expected to.”
While managers should not be expected to be mental health experts, it’s important that they get to grips with the workplace-related challenges that are having an adverse effect on their employees such as overworking and burnout.
These issues have only increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Research from Laya Healthcare last year found that while productivity levels were up since the previous year, it was at the expense of employees’ mental health, morale and motivation, falling by 19pc, 23pc and 17pc respectively.
‘Culture eats policy for breakfast and culture hides harm in plain sight’
– DR COLMAN NOCTOR
Noctor said the pandemic has led to “a state of languishing”, leaving many workers “mentally unfit” without the usual outlets of socialising and with the additional worry that comes from living through the pandemic itself.
“This has meant that our tolerance levels, our patience, our resilience and our hopefulness has been negatively affected, which undoubtedly impacts on our work relationship. This may not be evident in our productivity, but it is visible in our attitude or appetite for work, creativity and drive,” he said.
Advice for leaders
While lunchtime yoga classes and free fruit baskets are not the answer, Noctor said it’s vital that leaders invest in a good wellbeing culture.
“Culture eats policy for breakfast and culture hides harm in plain sight. Your initiatives have to be about creating a culture of support, authenticity and togetherness. Never has collegiality ever been so necessary, yet never has it been so hard to create,” he said.
“There is no silver bullet answer but encouraging a sense of teamwork, connectedness and mutual responsibility, and shared goals are crucially important. Validating those who are working hard and telling them that. Appreciating and accommodating the challenges that people are managing in the world and trying to offer some support in those aspects of people’s lives.”
He added that offering a colleague or an employee support with a project or checking in with them to make sure they know they are a valued member of the team can go a long way.
“Maybe regularly thanking people for their loyalty and commitment and fostering alliances between colleagues will go a little bit further that yoga at lunchtime or the fruit basket.”
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