Multi-stranded approaches to employee wellbeing
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Why unhealthy organisational culture could be smothering your wellbeing strategy

Employee wellbeing continues to rise up the corporate agenda.

In a survey of 1076 HR managers worldwide published late last year, we find organisational spend on wellbeing programmes continuing the upward trajectory it’s seen in recent years. Increasingly, businesses have a wellbeing strategy in place and, of those that presently don’t, many are planning to. For those of us that have been championing the wellbeing agenda for some time, this is welcome news.

We have an abundance of research testifying to the positive impact of wellbeing on companies’ bottom lines.

Though it doesn’t always feel it, wellbeing at work is a relatively young field. It has taken time to build the evidence base to show that investing in it makes business sense. Now, we have an abundance of research testifying to the positive impact of wellbeing programmes on companies’ bottom lines. A body of research that businesses have been paying close attention to, judging by the survey above.

What employee wellbeing strategies offer to organisations is the opportunity to invest in something that is, in the main, highly valued by employees. They also offer positive impacts on a whole range of business imperatives like sickness absence, presenteeism, talent retention, morale, employee engagement and productivity. All well and good then, because with a truly effective wellbeing strategy everyone wins.

And yet, despite this progress, I feel compelled to strike a cautionary note.

‘Wellbeing’ in name only

Whilst all businesses appreciate the bottom line benefits, many are investing in wellbeing because they feel it’s the right thing to do and because it’s consistent with their values and strategic priorities. Others, however, may be investing purely for financial reasons or because they fear being left behind by competitors. For some of these businesses, there is a real risk that their investment may not reap the rewards they are hoping for.

A wellbeing strategy is only truly effective if it’s aligned with the culture of an organisation.

And the reason for this? A wellbeing strategy, with all of the standard features such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), occupational health services, good nutritional options and fitness programmes, will only be truly effective if it’s aligned with the culture of an organisation. In businesses that have the most effective implementation of wellbeing strategies, the various components of organisational culture – the policies and procedures, managerial behaviours, leadership priorities and even the company values – all in their different ways support and reinforce the wellbeing strategy.

Swimming against the tide of organisational culture

All too frequently, wellbeing sits unloved in HR with no buy-in at board level.

When businesses overlook the cultural dimension when introducing wellbeing programmes, their organisational environment may not support its success.  Programmes are bolted onto existing staff amenities with no consideration of their fit with the organisation’s culture or whether there is support from important stakeholders. And all too frequently, wellbeing sits unloved in HR with little or no buy-in at board level.

What you then risk is having wellbeing programmes that are trying to create a healthier workforce while the organisational culture is pushing in the opposite direction. A culture that perhaps encourages long hours, has an exclusive focus on hitting targets, or employs punitive line management behaviours to achieve business goals.

Even in such adverse circumstances, wellbeing initiatives can still have some beneficial impact and elements may be well received by employees. But the effects of an unhealthy organisational culture will almost certainly prevent significant improvements in performance and productivity from materialising. Indeed, introducing the programmes may even heighten employees’ cynicism as they feel the business is papering over the cracks. That its commitment to employee wellbeing is only scratching the surface, and that it is using the programmes as means of directing attention away from corrosive aspects of company culture. Aspects that companies are unwilling – or unable – to address.

The conditions needed for a successful wellbeing programme

Supportive management behaviours, flexible working options and an open culture need to be part of the wellbeing package.

Employee wellbeing strategies have the potential to bring huge benefits to employees and employers alike, but they need to be introduced in the right way for the right reasons, and at the right time. To be properly effective, they need to be developed in a holistic way, consistent with a business culture that is conducive to their success. That means supportive management behaviours, flexible working options and an open culture that allows employees a voice and some say in shaping the working environment.

Real preparation is needed before the strategy is launched, to ensure that all relevant parties understand that they have a role to play. Business leaders in giving it their support and promoting it within the organisation, line managers in understanding the strategy and encouraging its adoption within their teams, and employees in accepting responsibility for their health and wellbeing inside and outside of work.

With all of these things in place, you have the right levels of commitment and the kind of healthy organisational culture that allows a workplace wellbeing strategy to succeed. The strategy will be perceived as authentic and will be appreciated by employees who see that it is congruent with the culture they experience on a daily basis.

When you have a wellbeing strategy that is rooted in the culture of the organisation, that’s when you can expect to see the full range of benefits for employees and for the business too.


This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Business Healthy blog