Health and wellbeing have become a major focus for organisations in recent years as they begin to understand the impact of stress, both physical and psychological, on productivity and staff turnover. They have found ways to encourage sleep, exercise and healthy eating, for example, and internal communicators should be key to supporting these initiatives.
These ways to treat the impact of stress on wellbeing in the workplace do not, however, address the underlying cause — the work itself. In recent months, a number of experts have made the case for introducing better working practices to improve wellbeing and bring benefits to employee and business performance alike, improving engagement in the process. Look after your people and they will look after you, so to speak.
In his book Dying For A Paycheck (Harper Collins, 2018), Jeffery Pfeiffer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, explains how employee engagement and wellbeing are linked. Pfeiffer provides research to show that two critical contributors to employee engagement — job control and social support — also improve employee health.
Job control — the amount of discretion employees have to determine what they do and how they do it — has a major impact on their health and wellbeing, Pfeiffer says.
Take control: the Whitehall Studies
The Whitehall Studies, conducted by British epidemiologist Michael Marmot and his team, looked at employees in the civil service and found striking links between job control and health.
Marmot’s team discovered that the higher someone’s rank, the lower the incidence of (and mortality from) cardiovascular disease. Controlling for other factors, it turned out that differences in job control, which were correlated with job rank, most accounted for this phenomenon. Higher-ranked employees enjoyed more control over their jobs and had more discretion over what they did, how they did it and when — even though they often faced greater demands in their jobs. There are similar findings correlating employee engagement and job control.
Additional Whitehall data related levels of work stress, measured as the co-occurrence of high job demands and low job control, to the presence of metabolic syndrome, risk factors that predict the likelihood of getting heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Employees who faced chronic stress at work were more than twice as likely to have metabolic syndrome compared with those without work stress. This suggests that more discretion and job control benefits engagement and wellbeing alike.
It makes sense that a chaotic workplace environment of frequent, uncontrollable events will cut engagement and motivation, and if employees cannot predictably and significantly affect what happens to them, they are likely to stop trying. “Why expend effort when the results of that effort are uncontrollable, rendering the effort fruitless?” asks Pfeiffer. “That’s why research shows that severing the connection between actions and their consequences — leaving people with little or no control over what happens to them at work — decreases motivation and effort.”
There are ways internal communicators can help boost job control. Work with HR to find ways to avoid micromanagement across the business. Give employees places on teams or working groups with more autonomy and discretion, and encourage job swap or secondment initiatives. These can make a difference but there is one key thing in internal communication’s remit: make sure employee ideas are always followed up, considered and publicised.
Pfeiffer’s second contributor to wellbeing and engagement is social support, the people you can count on and relationships with them. He says anything that pits employees against each other weakens teamwork and relationships. This could be performance reviews that force a certain percentage of staff to be rated ‘poor’, or inferring lower status on some groups (such as calling them ‘workers’).
Again, internal communication can play a role in boosting social support. Develop a sense of togetherness and community, and refer to employees as ‘colleagues’ or ‘team- mates’. Flatten structures in feedback or working groups so there is no us-and-them gap between managers and non-managers.
If the organisation cares, show it. Software company SAS has appointed a chief health officer not just to manage an on-site facility but to follow through on its commitment to care for employees if they fall ill and to provide the right care they need to remain healthy. Finally, celebrate connections and social bonds through awards, volunteering and corporate social responsibility schemes. Making social support part of your internal communication strategy can have a real impact on wellbeing.
Addressing stress and wellbeing is not always simple. For example, businesses may be tempted to ban out-of-hours email to tackle burnout. University of Sussex researchers studied this and found that some employees would benefit from switching off but for others, the accumulation of emails could cause those with high levels of anxiety to feel even more stressed. Indeed, human resources body CIPD says that some staff want or need to work flexibly. Mental wellbeing is a personal thing. Support for all employees, however they prefer to work, is critical.
The 2014 Health Survey for England found that one in four people reported having been diagnosed with at least one mental illness at some point in their lives. Awareness is growing and, in parallel, businesses are becoming more conscious of the importance of promoting positive mental health in the workplace. That means putting measures in place to help. A Mind study found that 56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance.
What can internal communicators do on this aspect? First, address the need for training or guidance through campaigns to promote mental wellbeing. Second, make sure that employees regularly see that help with wellbeing is easy to find, so they can feel assured it is available and accessible. Third, develop a first-aider network with mental health advice as part of the training. Finally, ensure managers set the tone from the top, with senior leaders championing wellbeing.
The case for making wellbeing a priority is compelling. Every organisation should strive for a healthy, happy and engaged workforce, and internal communication has a major role in making that happen.
Biography: Matt Frost
Matt Frost is Sales Director at Gatehouse and Gallagher Communication. He has more than 18 years’ experience working with organisations of all shapes, sizes and sectors. Matt’s passion for clear, honest and communication has helped some of the world’s leading organisations successfully engage their employees at an emotional and intellectual level, and in recent years, he has been heavily involved in a number of high profile cultural and change management programmes.
Tweet him: @frost_man_bing