Wellbeing is more than an aspiration

Written by Kate Hesson

Wellbeing is more than aspirational; it is a legal responsibility and commercial reality.

We now know that telling someone who is struggling mentally or emotionally to ‘harden up’ does not help them.  Some leaders still see wellbeing as an aspiration, viewing a wellbeing strategy as something nice to keep their staff feeling looked after and to show their stakeholders they are caring employers.  Other leaders think this topic falls into the ‘soft skills’ category, deeming it less important than ‘hard skills’ like finance and logistics.  In reality, it may be they find it too nebulous to know how to deal with it in practical terms.  

Wellbeing is a Legal Responsibility

With the evolution of health and safety, it is now seen as best practice to have wellbeing strategies implemented and integrated into all organisational processes.  The cynics among us will perhaps say that is because of the law. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (the Act), organisations have a primary duty of care to provide a work environment that is without risk to the health and safety of workers, so far as is reasonably practicable[i].

As they are considered to be ‘Officers’ by the Act, directors and senior managers may be held personally liable[ii]. In the past, we have typically focused on reducing the risk of physical harm, however the Act defines ‘health’ as being both physical and mental[iii]. Therefore, you must have effective systems for protecting worker health, both physical and mental, from work-related factors.

To promote overall health aligns with this legal emphasis, encompassing specific topics such as bullying and discrimination through to general wellbeing.  Having a positive workplace culture where the wellbeing of staff is promoted and protected is not only a legal obligation, it also improves your bottom line by enhancing productivity and reducing absenteeism.

Wellbeing is a Commercial Reality

A survey of New Zealand enterprises as part of the 2021 Southern Cross Health Society/ Business New Zealand Workplace Wellness Report[iv] found that in 2020, New Zealand lost 7.3 million working days and $1.85 billion due to worker absences. This report surveyed 116 employers who employed 95,488 people, the largest number of employees for any such survey in New Zealand.  While not surprising, the largest reason for absence in 2020 was related to people being sick with COVID-19. Mental wellbeing/stress was ranked as the fourth main overall driver of absenteeism (up from fifth the previous year)[v].

Essentially, a healthy workplace puts the health and wellbeing of its people at the centre of everything it does. While topics such as cyber-security and climate change are very important risks for organisations to monitor and manage, so too are people-related risks.  While organisations have always faced them, these have been particularly pronounced by, during and after the pandemic.  Threats to the health and wellbeing of your workforce threaten your organisation’s overall resilience and success.

“The pandemic has reinforced that employee health, risk protection and wellbeing is a central business risk, worthy of C-Suite attention.”
Sarah Brown
Mercer Marsh Benefits Leader, Pacific

In research of Kiwi risk and HR professionals conducted by Marsh insurers, many said that they lacked the skilled resources to understand and address all people-related issues. They also cited budget constraints and a lack of clarity around accountability within organisations as a significant barrier[vi]. 

Taking a risk management framework approach is one way leaders can integrate wellbeing into the overview of an organisation.  This will place your HR professionals appropriately in your organisational structure and enable you to consciously resource and support them so they can effectively implement your wellbeing strategy.

Before you can manage a risk, you need to understand what causes it. Peoples’ health and wellbeing is shaped by social, economic and environmental factors, including:

How businesses work and lead

  • Whether there is a culture of trust, good relationships and collaboration.
  • Clear systems and expectations around managing workloads that match the needs of you and your team.
  • Clear channels of communication where concerns and problems between people in the workplace can be discussed openly and dealt with constructively before they escalate into disputes.

The workspaces, environment and facilities provided

  • The physical conditions your people work in, the kind of work they do and how that affects their ability to make healthy choices.
  • Public acknowledgement of those that go above and beyond, showing gratitude and goodwill through giving back to your team with words and actions.

Individual lifestyle factors

  • The burdens and habits people bring to work from their homes such as how they eat and drink, health conditions, personal stresses, family issues.
  • What people bring to work from their communities, such as what they think and value, particularly if there are different ethnicities and religions in your team.

Managing the risks

Ideally you should always try to eliminate the risk but where that is not possible, you need to consider how to minimise it. Select the most effective controls that are proportionate to the risk and appropriate to your organisation. 

At Fair Way, our speciality is to help people manage conflict so it is a positive experience from which you and your organisation can learn.  A famous mediator, Ken Cloke said that:

“Conflict occurs at the crossroads of a problem that needs to be solved and the skills that parties have or don’t have to manage that conversation.”[vii] 

Conflict situations become particularly stressful when you do not know how to deal with them.  If you try and ignore them or shift the problems (such as by splitting up clashing colleagues into different teams), they will inevitably erupt again later, often more intensely.  We can help you get to the root cause of the conflict so that you resolve it once and for all – our tools range from training, conflict coaching and facilitations, through to private mediation, impartial investigations and expert assistance.

Don’t forget your top leaders

Organisations may have wellbeing measures in place for staff, but they are not always utilised by their executive or HR professionals.  Due to the nature of their roles, they are often looking out for others, but not for themselves.  They can hesitate to put their own wellbeing into either strategic planning documents or management conversations with their board. This is not to say that boards are not supportive — they are there when things get tough, but not often in a proactive or forward-thinking manner.

The risk is that unless you have high-functioning and healthy leaders, your organisation will not be as effective as it could or should be. On top of what you have in place for your staff, consider how to help leaders with their wellbeing.  An open, honest and supportive relationship with the board chairperson (or CEO as is appropriate) is helpful, although it is beneficial to have a safety net of an independent coach for leaders to connect with. Fair Way’s Kāpehu service provides that informal coaching solution.

Sometimes issues around executive performance and tensions between the roles of governance and management can cloud a chairperson/leader relationship. Leaders can often be in a lonely role within an organisation, so the chance to share and problem-solve with others who can test their thinking or offer them new skills is helpful. For leaders in smaller businesses who wear many hats, from finance to sales to compliance, having support with how to manage their team is an important wellbeing measure.

Wellbeing as a topic may seem new age and fluffy, but the research clearly shows that well people are more productive people. High stress levels cause sickness, which costs money that could be better utilised elsewhere.  High staff turnover is also a killer of momentum.  Not to mention, there are legal obligations under the Act to follow.

It is in your best interests to do more than to expect your people to simply ‘harden up’. Invest in the wellbeing of your team, your leaders — and yourself. 

Footnotes and references

[i] Section 30, Health & Safety at Work Act 2015

[ii] Section 44, Health & Safety at Work Act 2015 and more particularly, section 18 (b) … “any other person occupying a position in relation to the business or undertaking that allows the person to exercise significant influence over the management of the business or undertaking (for example, a chief executive)…”

[iii]Section 16, Health & Safety at Work Act 2015

[iv] Southern Cross Health Society/Business NZ Workplace Wellness Report

[v] Page 13, Southern Cross Health Socierty/Business NZ Workplace Wellness Report

[vi] https://www.marsh.com/nz/services/employee-health-benefits/insights/the-five-pillars-of-people-risk.html - This page enables you to download a report with tips and solutions on management people related risks.

[vii] A video explanation of this concept by Ken Cloke: https://www.mediate.com/video/the-crossroads-of-conflict-with-ken-cloke/

About the Author

Kate Hesson’s areas of practice within Fair Way include commercial and private disputes, in addition to workplace and boardroom related issues. Kate currently sits on the Council of Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand. Her other professional memberships include Dunedin Community Mediation, Institute of Directors, and Otago Women Lawyers Society.

If you would like to get in touch with Kate, you can contact her by emailing Kate.Hesson@fairwayresolution.com