Businesses risk ‘chronically compromising’ employee wellbeing, says psychologist

Organisations urged to stop treating mental health investment as an ‘act of philanthropy’

Employers must change their approach to workplace wellbeing or risk their staff being “chronically compromised” by their failure to take the issue seriously, according to one of the country’s leading business psychologists.

Ivan Robertson, emeritus professor at the University of Manchester and co-founder of consultancy Robertson Cooper, yesterday told the Association for Business Psychology (ABP) conference in London that workers’ wellbeing, and in particular their mental health, would only improve if the concept was made intrinsic to business goals. 

Viewing wellbeing as an act of philanthropy often led to it being treated less than seriously, Robertson told his audience. 

“Don’t do it because you’re being magnanimous and generous. It’s the wrong reason,” he said. “Aligning wellbeing goals with the strategy of the organisation means you’ve got the understanding at the very top level that it isn’t only about employee wellness but crucial for the business’s strategic outcomes.” 

Charity Mind@Work released a study earlier this year which revealed most employers fail to meet basic standards when it comes to supporting staff with mental health. This is despite 93 per cent of employers reporting they believed workplace wellbeing was an important business need.

Robertson added: “What helps to mitigate the effects of high demands are adequate resources and support. High demand jobs are the best jobs. High pressure, high challenge, high demands are all good, as long as resources and support enable you to achieve what you want to achieve.”

However, he said perceptions of wellbeing were often concerning: “When you ask managers if they’re committed to employee wellbeing they say ‘yes, of course.’ But when you scratch the surface and ask people to commit funds, there’s the belief wellbeing is about going easy on people and will cause a performance hit,” he said.

“That’s almost certainly wrong. Flushing it out and getting rid of that belief is difficult and it’s still there.”

Robertson suggested assessing the workplace to identify possible causes for wellbeing problems before outlining intervention strategies. He recommended introducing "wellbeing champions" to create a culture of openness and identifying "pressure points", with regular debriefs to assist teams under particular stress. 

Elsewhere at the conference, Paul Devoy, chief executive of Investors in People, said strong management was key to shifting the dial on wellbeing: “You can’t out-yoga a bad boss. Wellbeing initiatives won’t help people deal with a bad boss. We’re coming at it from the wrong end. It’s not about training managers in wellbeing, it’s about training managers to be managers," he said.

He added that training should not be viewed as a catch-all solution. “Unless you can change the culture in which you want [managers] to behave properly, management training won’t be effective. The environment they come back into will mean they revert back to old behaviours.”