Why your wellbeing initiatives might be failing – and how to fix it

By Michelle Burke, Megan Jones

Research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive suggests that work-related stress, depression, and anxiety resulted in approximately 17 million working days lost in the UK in 2021-22. Their analysis indicates that this figure is an increase from previous years, highlighting that the cost of poor mental health in the workplace is going up, rather than down.

Whilst organisations are seeking to reduce these figures by investing in the wellbeing of their employees, many continue to see their workforce heavily impacted by work-related mental health challenges. This suggests that their current investments are not having the desired impact, and something may be preventing employees from realising the benefits of these interventions. So what can organisations do to maximise investment and increase the success rates of their wellbeing initiatives?

We’ve identified four factors that are critical in creating a supportive wellbeing culture. With these four factors in place, employees will be empowered to reap the benefits of their organisation’s wellbeing initiatives.

1. Ensure leadership accountability

Without leadership sponsorship and advocacy, your employees may not feel they are supported in taking part in activities that prioritise their wellbeing. Therefore, it’s essential that your leaders are aware of their responsibility. This means encouraging and training your leaders to:

  • Demonstrate consideration for wellbeing through open support and sponsorship of wellbeing programs. Leaders should proactively encourage participation in wellbeing programmes through role modelling this behaviour themselves. Where they are comfortable, talking about their own wellbeing needs and encouraging other team members to look after their wellbeing creates an open environment where employees feel safe to speak up.
  • Protect teams by providing them with the space to build wellbeing into their ways of working. Wellbeing considerations should be a fundamental to how leaders set targets and deadlines. As the key decision makers, they should stay close to their teams so that they understand the pressures and demands. This will help to inform decisions and make the right adjustments where wellbeing is a risk.
  • Triage team members to the right support at the right time. A leader is responsible for addressing challenges that are within their control. For example, adjusting an individual’s workload or work environment where this might lead to or exacerbate wellbeing-related issues. If a team member is struggling for reasons that are out of control of the leader, they are responsible for directing the individual to the right support.

2. Allow your team to shape their wellbeing needs

We are all energised by different things. Employees will have differing preferences that ultimately influence their own wellbeing, such as working hours and working environment. In some situations, factors that support one person’s wellbeing might negatively impact another’s. Therefore, employees need to be given the voice to say what they need on a personal level and define as a team what will work for them. They might do this by:

  • Reflecting on personal wellbeing needs and all the elements that make up their own experience of feeling ‘well’. This can be done on an individual basis using a range of reflective tools, for example using wellbeing ‘passports’ or ‘manuals’. These act as a vehicle to discuss working needs and preferences and provide the team with language and opportunity to share these needs with their colleagues. This creates a more open environment where teams better understand each other’s working preferences, patterns, and styles, and have the tools to support them in doing this in the long-term.
  • Contracting together to agree principles that enable employees to work in a way that accommodates their differing needs. Teams can run a team charter workshop to set out clear principles that are inclusive of all members’ requirements and agree the right way to look after each other. This approach ensures that these principles are agreed by all team members, making it easier to hold others to account.

3. Empower individuals to prioritise their wellbeing

When an employee feels they have the permission to prioritise their own needs, they will feel safer in speaking up and asking for support. As part of our first recommendation, we highlighted the power of leadership role modelling and how this can create a more open environment for employees to speak up. This open dialogue supports the whole team in building an understanding of each other’s needs, enabling the team to embed the right support mechanisms, supporting employees to get what they need faster. There are further activities you can implement to support this environment and ensure employees feel empowered:

  • Regular feedback loops – this is crucial for highlighting wellbeing risks as quickly as possible, where tangible actions can be taken. There are a range of ways in which a team can ‘monitor’ wellbeing protection activities and impact. As a minimum, it’s important to conduct regular pulse checks to assess the baseline shifts in wellbeing. These can be complemented with regular discussions about what the results are saying, putting in place team-based actions where needed.
  • Building psychologically safe environments where employees feel safe to speak up without fear of judgement. PA’s research with MOD demonstrated that the biggest impact of psychological safety in teams comes from leadership behaviours. Similarly, clarity of direction and the time invested in understanding what the team is striving to accomplish also leads to psychological safety. With that in mind, as a leader, it’s important to provide an ongoing presence, being available to provide support to your team at the time of need. Secondly, leaders should look to communicate the link between the purpose of daily activities to the overarching purpose of the team.

4. Embed wellbeing into your ways of working

Looking after wellbeing should not be an additional action on the ‘to-do’ list but should underpin the culture of the team. It should be considered in how you engage with stakeholders, allocate work, and even how you provide feedback. Simple ways you can do this include:

  • Start as you mean to go on – as new teams come together or when new people join the team, set the expectation that discussing, understanding, and accommodating different working preferences and styles is the norm. This means holding reflection and contracting sessions as part of your team or employee mobilisation and ensuring that all team members can buy in to the ‘contract’.
  • Regular review of progress – make a commitment to regularly review and update your team contract, reflecting honestly on progress made. The reflection and contracting tools should be live, ever-changing documents rather than materials that stay on a shelf. This can be done by using regular team-working check-ins to reflect on your contract. Over time, your team will develop the right processes to implement when wellbeing comes under threat. This will support individuals to speak up with confidence knowing action will be taken and creates the space for individuals to challenge one another if required.
  • Communicate your working preferences with stakeholders, encouraging them to share theirs also. This can be done by sharing your ‘contract’ or working principles with stakeholders through email signatures or when initially starting to work with new groups. Even more importantly, make sure your working preference agreements are easily accessible for your team.

When implementing wellbeing support in your organisation, considering these four factors will help ensure you’re getting the most impact from your wellbeing initiatives, resulting in lower costs associated with a happier workforce. If you’re not sure where to start, pick one of the factors and focus on embedding the practices into your team. Over time, and where appropriate, add more of the practices into ways of working and adjust based on your teams’ needs. Improved wellbeing – driven and embedded at organisational level – allows employees to be more productive, more creative, and more impactful. When we’re happy, we do our best work.

About the authors

Michelle Burke PA people & change expert
Megan Jones PA wellbeing & change expert

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