How L&D teams can support wellbeing in the workplace

13 min read
Oct 17, 2022 1:24:37 PM

It's not all good at work. The Gallup State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report looks at  topics including employee engagement, wellbeing, stress, and worry. Only 21% of employees say they feel engaged at work, and only 33% describe themselves as thriving. 60% of workers worldwide are emotionally detached from work and 19% are unhappy.  

Things might be bleak, but wellbeing at work isn’t a pretty fantasy. Sure, only 21% of workers feel like they’re thriving, but 95% of those fortunate people say they’re treated with respect all day and 87% report smiling and laughing a lot. Gallup writes, “Business units with engaged workers have 23% higher profit compared with business units with miserable workers.” Teams with thriving workers see significantly lower absenteeism, turnover and accidents, and higher customer loyalty. As a result, Gallup exhorts leaders to  prioritise employee wellbeing as part of their employer brand promise and add wellbeing measurements to their KPIs.  

Ciaran Fox is a health promoter and community engagement specialist from the Mental Health Foundation with 25+ years’ experience promoting wellbeing and community in workplaces. He shares details of the most successful work wellbeing initiative he’s ever seen, explains why wellbeing is a top down proposition, and how L&D teams can help their colleagues thrive.  


Wellbeing is bigger than the individual  

A simple lay definition of wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well. Ciaran explains, “This definition is useful to help communicate the idea that wellbeing isn't just about what happens inside you, it's behavioural and interpersonal as well, influenced by how you perform in the world, and that includes the world of work.” 

“One problem with organisations’ approach to wellbeing is they often put the onus on individuals to look after their own wellbeing. But that’s not how wellbeing works. And that individualised approach is related to the neoliberal approach to health that sees wellbeing as a moral virtue, something you take care of yourself. Under that ethos, if you’re not thriving then you've done something wrong. That approach ignores factors beyond your control. Maybe your workplace is toxic or dangerous, or you’re overstretched and under resourced.”  

“The definition of wellbeing as feeling good and functioning well comes to us from Western science, but here in New Zealand and Australia we also benefit from indigenous models of wellbeing. Indigenous models of wellbeing across the world have many similarities, and one of the major common themes is wellbeing is holistic. When indigenous peoples think about health and wellbeing, they don't see physical and mental health as separate.”  

“In New Zealand, the Māori model for wellbeing is te whare tapa whā, the four-sided house, a metaphor for the four domains that make up your health, your physical, mental, spiritual, and social wellbeing. Those things are interconnected. If one suffers, your whole health suffers. And increasingly science backs up this approach, showing that the best way to invest in wellbeing is in a holistic way. For example, physical activity improves our mental health. Meaningful work and relationships improve our spiritual health by giving us a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. So not only does te whare tapa whā make it clear what wellbeing is, it gives organisations a blueprint for how to support it.”  

“There’s a convergence between indigenous models of health and Western psychology. One of the criticisms of positive psychology is it has had too individual a focus. Increasingly research in that area is looking at collectivist cultures that see things in a more holistic sense. And when you look at the state psychology describes as flourishing, there’s a lot of crossover with indigenous models of wellbeing. Researchers have identified positive relationships as important and also spirituality, or meaning and purpose if you prefer more scientific terms. These are things that haven't traditionally been acknowledged as important by science until now.” 


Poor working relationships as the #1 cause of workplace stress 

Given many workplaces are a collectivist endeavour, a collectivist model of workplace wellbeing makes perfect sense. Ciaran says, “An individualised approach ignores that most workplaces are interconnected organisms where people work in teams. But we’re not isolated at work. We're constantly interacting with people. Even if we're not in a people oriented role, we have managers, colleagues, and direct reports.” 

“We also work in environments that we can't always control, so that context is really important. In industrial psychology, we talk about stress exposure environments. There’s your physical environment, so your workspace may expose you to stressful situations, whether it’s the building, the environment, or the equipment you use. There’s your functional environment, the work you do, which may have challenging deadlines or stressful interactions with customers. And then there's your cultural environment, the social and emotional climate of your workplace, your relationships with people. So, if you think about those different exposure environments, that can help guide you where to put your efforts to improve team wellbeing.”  

“Be aware that culture eats the first two factors for breakfast. If your workplace has poor relationship dynamics or bad management practices, those are the biggest stress creators. Many businesses put effort into their physical environment and think they’ve nailed wellbeing. They put a bowl of fruit in their staff room and buy some funky furniture, but they don't address the functional or the cultural aspects, and that's where most of the stress is coming from. Physical environment is important, especially when it comes to safety, but it’s also the easy bit.” 


More wellbeing = more productivity, creativity & innovation 

Research is clear about the benefits of wellbeing in the workplace. Ciaran explains, “People with high levels of wellbeing are more productive. But the productivity thing is interesting because it's not just about people being more efficient. Under stress your cognitive bandwidth declines. Your ability to think is squeezed, you tend to focus in on problems and that's all you can see. Whereas people with high levels of wellbeing are more creative, more likely to have insights, and more likely to be problem solvers and innovators.” 

“The New Economics Foundation did some interesting research into flourishing workplaces to understand what they were doing right. One of the key things they found was giving people more interesting work was more important than trying to reduce stress. Obviously, people should be well resourced and not overstretched, but if you can enable people to connect with a sense of mastery and purpose at work it is incredibly rewarding. Giving people the ability to make decisions and have some control over the design of their role and making sure they feel supported by leadership to do that, will make them more engaged and productive.”  

“Purpose is crucial, one of the core features of wellbeing is having a sense of meaning and purpose. And employment can either contribute to that or hinder that. If people are in a role that feels purposeless, and meaningless, it's harming one of the key pillars of their wellbeing, so they're not going stick around. Even if people just see their role as a job, try and find ways to make it meaningful for them, maybe starting with the fact that there's a paycheck coming home to the family, and acknowledging and celebrating the value of that.” 


Accentuate the positive and eliminate the truly toxic  

Ciaran believes stress isn't necessarily a demon because everyone experiences it differently. “A certain amount of stress is useful. There’s stress that galvanises us and stress that inhibits us, although too much of any kind of stress is harmful. But because everyone responds to stress differently, rather than trying to minimise stress, it can be more helpful to teach people ways to enhance the protective factors of their roles that can buffer them against stress.”  

“One protective tactic is enhancing people's sense of mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Another is addressing your cultural environment because positive relationships, the social and emotional support people feel from managers or colleagues is a powerful antidote to stress.” 

“Equally, psychological safety is critical, so address things like toxic behaviour, bullying and discrimination head on with zero tolerance because they’re poisonous and will undermine all of your good work. If someone is experiencing bullying in the workplace it will blind them to any good things about their role and erode wellbeing to the point where they’ll look for another job to avoid their suffering, and no amount of money and quirky workplace perks will trump that.” 


Wellbeing is a top-down proposition 

If leadership lacks wellbeing or lacks an understanding of the importance of wellbeing, it affects the whole organisation. Ciaran agrees. “An organisation might throw money at their team’s physical environment or at personal development, but if it has a problem at leadership level they're wasting money. Save money on gym memberships and put your leaders and managers through emotional development and leadership training instead. That’s bang for buck right there because those are the people creating your culture on the daily. They’re either going to enhance wellbeing or detract from it. And that’s where you should start any wellbeing initiative because leaders have to be onboard, and lead by example.” 

“The best approaches I've seen to wellbeing in the workplace have been long term and organic. Not off the shelf learning programmes. Any effects I've seen from short term learning are temporary and uneven across an organisation. More often than not people feel learning like that is a box ticking exercise.”  

“Wellbeing is bigger than a one-off learning programme. It needs to be a full organisational approach, and it doesn’t happen fast. But senior leadership often get daunted by that prospect. That's why their instinct is to reach for off the shelf learning products. And there are a lot of operators in this space offering training, so it feels convenient. But it really doesn't work.”  


The anatomy of a successful wellbeing initiative 

One of the most successful wellbeing initiatives Ciaran has seen was by a large corporate bank. They got senior leadership on board first. Ciaran says, “Senior leaders don’t have to drive a wellbeing initiative, but they have to be 100% behind it. Next step was a series of trainings for middle management to build basic literacy in wellbeing and encourage them to tap into their own personal lived experiences of wellbeing. But what was interesting was what came next.”  

“Some managers were already on their own wellbeing journeys and passionate about it. Others could see that it made good economic sense. But there were some managers who weren’t interested in this airy-fairy stuff, so the L&D team didn’t spend any more time on them. But the managers who were interested and engaged got follow up support and coaching and started developing wellbeing initiatives organically with their teams.”  

“Then those teams working on their wellbeing started succeeding more. Neighbouring managers started going, what the heck’s going on over there, what's their secret sauce? L&D started bringing successful managers along to talk to others about what they'd been doing and the radical changes they’d seen in their team culture. Seeing the success of other teams helped late adopters come to practicing wellbeing in their own time, and in their own way.”  

“It would've been counterproductive if the bank had tried to force that second wave of managers to take part in the wellbeing initiative before they were ready. They would've got eye rolling, and it would have been a waste of energy, time, and money. But when managers were ready, they got it. And the way the L&D team played it, holding support back until managers asked, making it seem really desirable, was really effective at winning managers over.”  

“The bank played a long game, and it was a very brave decision at the executive leadership level to let it play out over a period of years. Executive leaders answer to shareholders and they’re often under pressure to show speedy results. But they said, this is a long-term process, not a box ticking exercise. You can't buy wellbeing off a shelf. You have to build it.”  


A focus on simplicity and psychological safety  

Ciaran most admired the bank’s focus on psychological safety. “It was about enabling people to bring their whole self to work, not wasting energy putting on a façade, but being able to say, I'm not doing so well. Encouraging real conversations enabled workmates to recognise when a colleague needed a bit of care. People were surprised and relieved at how much emotional support they got. Moreover, it allowed team leaders to offer the kind of solutions and support managers can put in place if they know what's going on for a person.”  

“The initiatives team leaders were rolling out were simple, daily things because it was all about people growing their wellbeing literacy and going on a journey together. Branches already had team meetings, so they simply built time in those meetings for people to talk about what was going on for them at home, the good and the bad. Over time, trust built up, people felt able to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability accelerated trust even more. When that first person takes a leap of faith and trusts their team enough to tell them things aren’t great, it gives permission to everyone else in that team to do the same. But you have to take your time. You can't expect teams to start baring their soul in the first meeting.”  

“Another key thing was managers started exploring wellbeing in their own lives. When they were talking about it with their team, they could say, I've embraced the five ways to wellbeing with my family, this is some of the stuff we’re doing and this is what I've noticed, how could we do something like this together as a team? Leaders need that lived experience of wellbeing to be authentic, if they’re rolling out some programme while rolling their eyes, people's bullshit detectors pick up on that.” 


Giving teams ownership of their wellbeing journey 

Ciaran notes that a key ingredient  of this wellbeing initiative’s success was that teams came up with their own ideas. “Some teams decided to explore wellbeing topics. They used the five ways as inspiration and made a commitment to do one new thing each month. For example, one month they might be more active, and then get together and share the stories.”  

“One manager told a story about how someone on their team used to love cycling but hadn't ridden a bike since they were a teen. They wanted to, but they were nervous. The whole team were really supportive. There was so much goodwill that person got themselves a bike and started riding. And when they told their colleagues they'd gone for their first bike ride and how good they felt, the team cheered, and this person felt so moved they burst into tears. This was just one example of the team celebrating successes and boosting each other up.” 

“Other teams suggested lunchtime learning and had guest speakers come in. But then they realised they had a whole lot of knowledge within the team. People had hobbies and side hustles. Someone did a talk on herbalism, another on geocaching, another on massively multiplayer online games. People were learning, and demonstrating mastery, and sharing fun.”  

“The teams owned the programme and built it themselves, activating culture change in the workplace and encouraging each other to embrace wellbeing outside the workplace. That organic approach made the movement self-sustaining. New staff arrive into a culture geared towards wellbeing, it's not a difficult induction.” 

“The biggest threat to a culture of wellbeing is leadership change. If a new chief executive comes in, it can feel hard for the rest of the team to tell the big boss what to do. So, wellbeing has to be owned at board level as well because when senior leadership changes, the board wraps around new recruits and goes, this is how we do it here. Actively inducting people into a culture of wellbeing starts at recruitment. For wellbeing to become imbedded in a workplace you have to cement it into your values at all levels of your organisation, so, test values when you recruit because induction is too late. Really lay out in the interview how you roll. Ask, do your values line up with our values? Because if they don't, it’s not going to work for you here.” 


How L&D teams can encourage a culture of wellbeing  

To summarise, wellbeing is bigger than the individual, and it starts with senior leadership, if they’re not onboard, time and money spent on wellbeing is wasted. Poor working relationships cause toxic stress, but not all stress is bad, so while a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and discrimination is essential, it can be more effective to focus on things that bolster wellbeing, rather than minimising stress.  

So, what role does learning and development have to play in wellbeing. Ciaran says, “Firstly, the process of learning and developing is in itself wellbeing enhancing, and one of the five ways to wellbeing. Learning is also part of any organic wellbeing initiative. Some people need to know the why, so learning can show why wellbeing should be taken seriously and how it works. Understanding why something is important can be very motivating.”  

“Learning can also help connect people with their own purpose. A sense of meaning is essential to wellbeing. A principle we live by in health promotion is ask people what matters to them, rather than what's the matter with them. When you ask people what matters to them, you start to unlock information that illuminates meaning and purpose. It starts aspirational dialogue around how people want to be, what their goals and dreams are, and that leads to learning solutions. Activating aspiration is curative. It's often in the active pursuit of aspirations that we find healing. So, unlocking what matters to people and manifesting that in an organisation is a powerful approach to wellbeing.”  

“Then there’s the more prosaic level of simply educating people about how they can adopt the five ways to wellbeing. Our bodies and minds don't come with an operating manual and many people go through life and don't learn self-care. People often say to me, ‘I wish I'd learned this when I was at high school, no one ever talked to me about how emotional literacy can impact my sense of wellbeing and how well I function.’ This is individualised action and we’ve discussed the limitations of that, but a key aspect of health promotion is developing personal skills. When we know how we work as people, we’re better equipped to look after ourselves.” 

“If we protect our wellbeing, it gives us more strength and resilience to connect and collaborate. And where we can make real change is when teams come together and improve things that aren’t working. But when you’re ground down, it becomes really difficult to advocate for yourself, let alone on behalf of your team or your workplace. Everything connects together, developing personal skills also develops culture change and environmental factors that support and sustain wellbeing.” 


Enhance wellbeing with Chameleon  

However your organisation embarks on its wellbeing journey, Chameleon makes learning quicker, easier and more rewarding to produce, and more enjoyable to consume. That’s a little (or not so little) wellbeing boost right there.  

For inspiration, check out our 5 Ways to Wellbeing module created with Chameleon.  

Download our free Wellbeing module

MicrosoftTeams-image (25)-1




Get Email Notifications