Organisations are increasingly prioritising employee wellness as part of their strategy to increase productivity and to attract and retain top talent. This focus, together with greater recognition of the importance of mental health, has led to substantial growth in the global corporate wellness ‘industry’.
Despite the growing popularity of and demand for corporate wellness products and services, according to Barry Bloch, Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership, employee wellness requires a much deeper and more individualised approach than subsidised solutions like gym memberships and outsourced EAP programs can offer.
“To improve employee wellness and therefore organisational performance, employers must move beyond the ‘obvious’ and the ‘easy’, to address wellness at the individual level,” Barry says. “Understanding the fundamental link between effective leadership and employee wellbeing is the most powerful tool for improving both employee wellness and organisational sustainability and success.”
Here we look beyond the market trends for ‘industrialised solutions’ to consider the importance of individual wellness, and the role of effective leadership in achieving it.
Wellness isn’t one-size-fits-all
Today the corporate wellness industry – valued at $295.4m in Australia alone – offers diverse products and services aimed at improving employee wellness. While there may be value to be gained from some of these solutions, they offer a generalised way to approach what is in fact a highly individual issue.
According to Barry there is merit in implementing considered, contextualised and customised organisation-wide initiatives such as alternative working arrangements. But he encourages leaders to remember that there are no quick fixes for employee wellness, and relying solely on these system-wide measures can diminish the impact of well-intended wellness strategies.
Leading the individual
“It’s easy for leaders to become too simplistic in finding wellbeing solutions. In doing so, leaders often seek solutions that involve ‘industrialising’ people processes and systems, when the most effective way to improve wellbeing is actually to lead the individual well,” says Barry. “As leaders we must remember that nothing is logical and everything is psychological, that we are individuals first and our ability to think, feel, and do can’t always be predicted or controlled within a one-size fits all system or process. And although whole of organisation wellness strategies might feel simpler for leaders, they should never replace addressing wellness at the individual level.”
In addition, it helps to think of people as the fabric of an organisation, with each person representing an individual thread. “By pulling one thread it pulls other parts of the organisation, and in this way the wellness of one individual can directly and indirectly impact the wellness of many others,” Barry continues. “Therefore, to improve employee wellness, it must primarily be addressed at the individual level. And, in this context, effective leadership will always be the single biggest factor in achieving employee wellness at work.”
Leading the whole person
While employee wellness can be impacted by the work that we do, the physical space that we occupy and the climate or team environment that we operate in, there are many more factors that shape wellbeing. To improve employee wellness all contributing factors must be considered.
“As leaders we must be able to take the whole person into account, because employees bring their whole selves to work, not just the parts that they need to perform their job,” says Barry. “Leading the whole person isn’t always easy, but it is where we start to support wellness needs such as anxiety, distress and burnout.”
How can you lead at an individual level?
Naturally, the size and structure of an organisation may shape how leaders can lead.
“To be able to lead effectively and enhance employee wellbeing at an individual level in organisations, effective leaders and leadership practices are needed at all levels,” says Barry. “When leaders listen to their teams and also build the skills in their people to do the same, it allows people to be better led at an individual level and for wellness to be improved across the organisation.”
“To understand wellness and know how to lead the individual, leaders need to listen actively and be practically present, which means getting rid of distractions and focusing on the individual in front of them. This focus allows leaders to respond to wellness needs and to support solutions that meet the needs of the individual, and benefit the individual and others,” he continues.
Can wellness and performance co-exist?
When employees have a sense of wellness, they are typically more productive and engaged. Yet misconceptions still exist around achieving organisational performance at the expense of managing the wellbeing of employees.
“A command and control style of leadership that mistakenly sees bullying and fear as effective leadership, and that fails to recognise the importance of individual wellness and leadership at the individual level, is a far greater threat to performance than any investment in or focus on employee wellness,” says Barry. “If leaders can create employee connectivity and a positive sense of belonging, underpinned by a deep and genuine commitment to understanding and enhancing wellness, then organisational performance will very likely follow.”
“Some leaders tend to see employee wellness as something that detracts from the focus on organisational performance, when it actually contributes to improved employee attraction, retention and performance. It is also important to note that most people really want to perform well and do a good job, and being good at what we do at work is also incredibly good for our wellness.” says Barry. “Ultimately, organisational performance is about how we all lift together, as individuals, teams and as a whole. When we achieve together and meet our potential together it can also be beneficial for our wellbeing. And when we lead well at the individual level and take a sincere interest in the wellbeing of others at the individual level, we will also lift our teams and our organisations.”