Employee wellbeing and making staff happy is taking centre stage in the office but how healthy is the thinking behind it?
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‘Dynamic workplaces’
Arguably, such touches become even more important in today’s work spaces. As real estate becomes more expensive, the pressure is on organisations to reduce their office footprint. This has given rise to the growth of so-called “dynamic workplaces”, open-plan, office-free and, typically, short on desk space.

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If you’re not already in one, you may not know that this often entails staff having not a desk but a locker, a laptop, and a plastic box for paperwork which they trundle around with looking for a free desk.

“It’s about reducing floor space and costs but to do it you have to offer staff something better than a faceless office,” says Trevor Schwer of The Interiors Group, a specialist in corporate fit-out and refurbishment.

That typically means plenty of quiet spaces, breakout rooms, phone booths, as

well as everything from prayer rooms to breastfeeding rooms. An attractive canteen, pool tables and table tennis are par for the course.

Most new offices will provide desk space to meet an estimated 80 per cent of the overall staff complement, which takes account of numbers missing due to off-site meetings or illness. “If a company has a big sales team out on the road, it makes sense. It also helps with the clean-desk policy, you’d be amazed what some people accumulate when they consider their desk a home,” Schwer says.

But the modern workplace can also put pressure on workers – not least to get a desk. As one employee put it: “You get a locker for your personal belongings, and after that, it’s first up, best dressed.” There’s a whole new cause for anxiety.

Even the vaunted productivity gains are open to question. Open plan was supposed to boost interaction and break down organisational silos, but a report by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests the benefits don’t outweigh the downside – noise and loss of privacy.

Cynical view

It’s easy to take a cynical view about employee wellbeing as initiatives designed to make workers feel happy but really to make them work harder. In fact, the aims of employers and employees should be aligned – better work and better working lives.

“Some organisations undertake wellbeing initiatives in order to keep people at work longer, but that is not the reason they should be doing it,” says Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland, the HR professionals organisation.

If you are undertaking workplace wellness initiatives, it’s important to assess their impact to see whether it is good for the people and for the organisation, she says. This is because, in practice, some don’t have an impact on either.

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It’s important too that such programmes don’t take the focus away from the main workplace stressors – “work overload and lack of tools to do the job properly”, she says. “Often we talk about wellbeing and about physical and mental-health initiatives, but you actually need to look at stress and workload and what causes the problem.”

Stress, presenteeism, which she describes as the “need to be seen to be here”, and mental health are the things that really affect wellbeing.

One of the simplest ways to improve wellbeing may simply be to allow greater flexibility to work from home more. As well as saving on the commute, it can give workers back a sense of control, she says. It’s particularly important for staff working in today’s fast-paced, dynamic, flexible workspaces. “It’s the quid pro quo.”

The volume of work expected and management style is crucial. “If you are expecting people to work long hours and then offering them yoga classes, that only increases their stress because you are giving out two messages. Employees will see through that.”

The vast majority of organisations, 84 per cent according to CIPD’s research, offer employee assistance programmes, while 45 per cent offer mental-health supports and 44 per cent have on-site wellbeing initiatives.

But employee assistance programmes typically only kick in when a problem has already arisen for an employee. “It’s a tool for when something has gone wrong,” says Connaughton. Finding out what might have led to it, and taking action to redress that issue, is worth investing more in.

“Focus on your culture,” she says. What you don’t want is managers who, under pressure themselves, spread it about. It’s why providing training for managers to support and coach staff will be of more value than bringing in a mindfulness guru.

“If you’re not doing the culture piece, you’re not going to get any benefit from your wellbeing initiatives in any case,” says Connaughton.

Source: Irish Times / Image: Pexels