Interest in well-being at work has blossomed in recent years, and a growing number of case studies on the topic, by Business in the Community and the Department for Work and Pensions, show that industry leaders now take it more seriously than ever.

Even so, the challenges created by a lack of well-being in our UK workforce, aren’t going away.

Worldwide, the economic crisis and recession forced many companies to scale back, restructure, outsource and lay-off their workforce to remain competitive (ILO 2016). For a battle-weary workforce, years of doing more for less as a result of austerity measures may be taking their toll. Recent surveys found that 51% of British employees would not recommend their employer to others, and that, within Europe, the UK ranks second from the bottom in terms of vitality.

With this bleak analysis, what can leaders like you realistically do to keep your workforce vital, in a sustainable way? Note the use of ‘sustainable’ – repeatedly asking employees to go the extra mile can give rise to burnout, especially if it becomes an accepted, unacknowledged norm.

Perhaps part of the answer lies with the tools we select

It’s all too easy for an employer to manage well-being via bolt-ons and assume that they’ve got well-being covered. Examples include laying on healthier food, local gym vouchers, sit-stand desks, at-the-desk shoulder massages, private health insurance or even EAP access.

Yet such choices are never going to be enough; either because they’re too superficial, or because they’re too reactive. Some of them could even feed a lingering myth that well-being is somehow a bit pink, a bit fluffy and the preserve of the tree-hugging do-gooder.

As with safety, if you really want sustainable well-being and effectiveness amongst your workforce, then you must tackle the root causes of well-being issues that lie within your culture, management systems and the very fabric of how your organisation is run.

So how can you tackle the root causes of well-being issues?

One way is to pay close attention to how decisions are made and how well they join-up. For example, announcing a layoff one day, followed by an office-refurbishment announcement the next, may jar at the commitment of those who are to remain.

Well-being can also be encouraged by recognising and managing the formal, as well as subtle, incentives that shape which behaviours are acceptable in order to progress within your organisation. Checks could be built in to ensure that it’s not possible to climb the career ladder without people management skills, by neglecting personal health, via nepotism or through excessive ruthlessness.

A third way is by systematically and mindfully managing your formal and informal communication channels, so that they reliably give people a voice, provide feedback on how their suggestions are being acted upon, demonstrably contribute to the company’s purpose, and make people feel valued.

Ensuring that communication is transparent also helps consistency between the official line and the grapevine. This way, morale is less likely to get dragged down by unfounded “ain’t it awful” naysaying.

One more way to embed sustainable well-being and resilience into your organisation is via flexibility. This doesn’t just mean flexible working arrangements (and it’s great to see more companies doing this), but flexibility realigning and redistributing both skills and workload according to rapidly changing internal and external demands.

Well-being demands emotionally intelligent leadership

We all know that approachable, accessible and responsive leaders are more adept at protecting workforce well-being. Nowadays though, in fast-changing, remote and mobile workplaces, we need leaders capable of adjusting their style according to the changing needs of their workforce and organisation.

Evidence now tells us that in conditions of economic restraint, an unrelenting visionary style, regularly asking for behaviour ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty, could sew the seeds of burnout.

This calls for emotionally intelligent leaders, capable of driving a vision, rewarding positive behaviour, inventive coaching and increasing involvement. We also need leadership that’s mindful of its responsibility to act as a role model. Sending emails late at night, missing lunch breaks, and sacrificing time at home once again sends a negative, yet powerful message to others on what it takes to be successful. While these habits may be fuelled by keeping control of a mammoth workload, together with a deeply ingrained protestant work ethic, they are fast becoming ill-suited to the challenges that the modern day workplace has on our resilience.

To stay effective, and sustain a good quality of life throughout the workplace, one that sees us into a healthy old age, we need to go for more fundamental solutions and let go of some unhelpful habits. But perhaps more pertinently, we need to rethink whether well-being really is a pink and fluffy issue, or whether it’s just good for business and people alike.


  • ILO (2016) Work Place Stress. A Collective Challenge:—ed_protect/—protrav/—safework/documents/publication/wcms_466547.pdf