The DNA of Work

Strategizing wellbeing

June 14, 2022 Season 1 Episode 29
Strategizing wellbeing
The DNA of Work
More Info
The DNA of Work
Strategizing wellbeing
Jun 14, 2022 Season 1 Episode 29

In a return to the subject of wellbeing, we pose the question – is it sufficient to run a campaign and regard wellbeing as a nice to have? Is it worth the money, the time and the effort? If a focus on wellbeing is to pay off, what does it take and where do you start?

Here's a quick overview of the discussion:

  • What do we mean by wellbeing? (1:45)
  • Why should organizations care about wellbeing? (4:52)
  • Why make it part of organizational strategy? (08:37)
  • How to implement well and avoid the pitfalls (15:31)
  • Where to start? (25:45)

If you have any questions that you'd like to discuss, please get in touch with host Karen Plum.

AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 


AWA Guest details:  



Advanced Workplace Associates contact: Andrew Mawson 

Advanced Workplace Institute contact: Brad Taylor

Music: courtesy of  

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

Show Notes Transcript

In a return to the subject of wellbeing, we pose the question – is it sufficient to run a campaign and regard wellbeing as a nice to have? Is it worth the money, the time and the effort? If a focus on wellbeing is to pay off, what does it take and where do you start?

Here's a quick overview of the discussion:

  • What do we mean by wellbeing? (1:45)
  • Why should organizations care about wellbeing? (4:52)
  • Why make it part of organizational strategy? (08:37)
  • How to implement well and avoid the pitfalls (15:31)
  • Where to start? (25:45)

If you have any questions that you'd like to discuss, please get in touch with host Karen Plum.

AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 


AWA Guest details:  



Advanced Workplace Associates contact: Andrew Mawson 

Advanced Workplace Institute contact: Brad Taylor

Music: courtesy of  

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:01 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. Many organizations are throwing huge amounts of money at wellbeing initiatives and campaigns. Given the current war for talent, are they simply trying to keep up with, or exceed what other organisations doing? Is this just the latest fashion or is it a strategic ‘must have’? Let's find out. 

00:00:24 INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:00:48 Karen Plum

In an earlier episode of the podcast, I was joined by Trevor Alldridge and Ken van Someren of Boost Cognition, and we explored the impact of wellbeing on individual, team and organizational performance. 

I'm sure lots of organisations are focusing on wellbeing initiatives, but despite big campaigns, many seem to only preach to (and attract) the converted. If wellbeing is to endure, it needs to become part of your organizational strategy, otherwise it's in danger of being a money pit, a vanity project, or seen as something that's ‘nice to have’, particularly when everyone else is doing it. In short, you need to know what you're trying to achieve. 

To dig into this, I invited Trevor and Ken back to the podcast and we're joined this time by AWA’s Senior Change Management consultant Anne Balle. I started by asking Ken to remind us - what do we mean by the term wellbeing? 

00:01:45 Ken van Someren

So when we talk about wellbeing, really what we mean here is how we feel, how we feel within ourselves. It's about our health, and really importantly, it's about our capacity for performance. And the nice analogy here is thinking about the battery on our smartphone and we often talk about wellbeing almost being the power status on your smartphone because we're very good at keeping an eye on our smartphone, seeing where the battery charge is, plugging in when it needs recharging.

Very often we're less good at doing this with ourselves, so recognizing when battery power's coming down and again plugging ourselves back in and recharging through good quality rest, recovery and wellbeing behaviors. 

But I think it's also important to consider wellbeing in its holistic sense. So this is physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and just like the battery in our smartphone, there's one battery to do all those different things. So again we have one battery or one capacity if you like, to do all these things and whether it's physical strain by going for a hard run, mental strain by a really busy day at work, or emotional strain through personal relationships, it all takes its toll. And it's all cumulative. 

So if we have particularly challenging aspects in one area of those, then our capacity or power to take on the others will come down. So it's really important that we consider both what happens at work, but also what happens in our personal time as well, and we can't possibly be at our best, or even maintain our health and wellbeing without considering both what happens at work and what happens at home.

And we always talk about a really nice way of thinking about this is, how can we bring our best selves to work and take our best selves home again? So we're coming in with high battery power and we're going back in a decent state and we are recharging, and we're doing that throughout the day throughout the 24-hour period.

So that hopefully explains what we mean by wellbeing. 

00:03:58 Karen Plum

And listening to you talking about the smartphone battery, I was thinking that as the smartphone gets older, the battery doesn't last so long, does it before it needs charging up? That resonates with me!

00:04:09 Ken van Someren

Yeah, so we see, we try and flick that the other way and I guess taking a sort of growth approach to it and you know, a lot of my background is from high performance sport and the reason why athletes train is to increase the capacity of that battery. And we can do exactly the same. 

So yes, to some extent we're fighting biology as we get older, but through getting the balance between strain, physical, mental and emotional, but also the periods of rest and recovery, we can actually enhance our battery power or we can enhance our capacity to take on the tasks of daily life.

00:04:46 Karen Plum

OK, I'd like to bring Trevor in here. Trevor, why should organisations care about wellbeing? 

00:04:52 Trevor Alldridge

Well, they certainly should care because wellbeing and performance are clearly linked, especially with knowledge workers. Organisations striving for better performance, usually thought of in terms of increased productivity, should start by ensuring their people can bring their best selves to work each day. They should adopt the mantra ‘a better you, is a better us’. 

And there's been a great temptation over the last two years in particular, to consider survey data and look only at the mean, or look mainly at the mean result and say well on average people say they're more productive and they say they feel better, but we encourage leaders in particular to take note of the distribution of that data. 

If leaders do take note of the distribution, they soon see there's a significant percentage of people who are struggling. Whether it's feeling less connected, they report some of them, lonely even, or simply exhausted by virtual workstyles probably dominated by digital comms. 

00:06:00 Ken van Someren

I think I've mentioned on the last podcast, Unilever did a really nice analysis of their own investments in wellbeing and they showed a 2½ fold uplift in productivity, so return on investment. So here's a company that does wellbeing very well, and it's important to note that it can either be done very well and done strategically, which is what we're going to talk about today, or it can be done in a slightly shotgun, tick box approach where very seldom does it pay. 

So that's a really important one, you know wellbeing pays and that stands to reason. We've already discussed we can't be at our best, we can't be productive, we can't perform, unless we look after our health and wellbeing. So clearly there's no good having all our team in the office, all working remotely, if we're working under performance with flat batteries. 

And another nice analogy here is we know if we get it wrong and by wrong - so low levels of battery power - this could be fatigue from inadequate recovery, high levels of chronic stress, maybe suboptimal working conditions, so lots of distraction, maybe mood and motivation is low, then scientific research has shown that cognitive function so this is decision making, information processing, is impaired by the same extent as being over the blood alcohol limit for driving in the UK, and indeed most countries. 

So in effect we have teams of people drunk on the job - so clearly we don't want that, we have to avoid that. And again I think it's important to say - Trevor spoke about wellbeing for performance - this isn't just about reducing sickness absenteeism. This is about how can we take everyone who is fine, maybe trundling along, feeling a little bit tired at times, how can we take them on and give them another 10%, 20%, 30% greater energy and battery power to be able to do the job. 

00:08:08 Karen Plum

It strikes me that a lot of organisations may tinker around the edges with this sort of stuff, and it's done at a tactical level and maybe even something that ‘we think we ought to do’, but it's not actually part of their strategy, and so inevitably, it doesn't really have the level of importance or acceptance as maybe it should do. 

Anne if organisations are really serious about this sort of thing, surely it's important that it is part of their strategy?

00:08:37 Anne Balle

Yeah, it definitely is, because it needs to be embedded. And if you want something that's actually going to be sustainable over time, it needs to be part of the organization’s strategy. We need to understand why are we actually doing this and be very specific on what we're trying to achieve and how it links to the organization's goals and strategies. Because otherwise I think there might be a tendency of you know, coming up with some sexy initiatives that are more like gimmicks, but maybe cost quite a lot of money, take a lot of resources, but don't necessarily deliver real results. 

00:09:12 Karen Plum

The danger is that it's about fads and fashions, and everybody else is doing it, so I need to do it as well and I'm not really sure why I'm doing it, so knowing why you're doing it I guess is the first thing. 

How complicated is it to put this sort of an initiative into place? How would an organization go about it? 

00:09:32 Trevor Alldridge

I would say it's not at all complicated, but that's if you adopt a process and what we've done at Boost has been to develop a very easy to adopt process and I should stress that it's a process rather than a campaign. So much of wellbeing has been campaign led, it's been a - let's do the Everest step challenge this month - and that's something which is over quickly and soon forgotten and probably has little enduring effect. 

It needs to be as Anne was just saying, needs to be something that's embedded in working practices and role modeled by leaders and managers. That's the way that you get an enduring effect from it, and we begin by educating leaders, then equipping them with a set of tools and clear instructions and provide world class support to help and guide them. With that, it can be quickly and easily put in place and it will certainly have an enduring effect. 

00:10:30 Karen Plum

Right, so it's important to start with the leaders is that quite a challenge, Ken? I mean it in your experience, is it easy to get the leaders onside? 

00:10:40 Ken van Someren

Well, I think it depends what the organization is trying to do, and I think both Trevor and Anne have mentioned the campaigns and the risk of this being tick box. I think for the organisations who might still see it as exactly that, then yes, it is hard to engage the leaders, but they're probably not the organisations where we're going to make the greatest impact with, and therefore where we're probably going to spend less time.

But certainly if an organization is serious about this, then you know, starting with the leadership is so important because not only do the leaders set the tone, the leaders have such a profound ripple effect across the organization, so you know both in terms of their energy, their positivity, their high performance behaviors, but also just how they go about recognizing and valuing wellbeing for performance. And so yes, sometimes it is challenging and providers might go in and try and deliver something to the workers at scale, but of course if there isn't organizational leadership buy in, then inevitably, there's going to be friction and there’s going to be challenges. 

And we do hear it when we're talking with employees and they go yeah, this is great, but - and there's too many ‘butts’ and of course we always try to move from the ‘but’ to what can I do? But inevitably, you know, you could be banging your head on a glass ceiling here. 

So yeah, really important to get the leaders engaged. I think increasingly so, they are becoming engaged. One of the things, just to pick up on Trevor's point there, around the approach we take at Boost - yes it's about engaging the leaders first and I think there's two key mechanisms by which we can do that. 

One is really illustrating the importance of wellbeing, what it means for performance. So not, it's not just this fluffy, nice to have thing over here. It's about - it actually pays. It makes a difference, in so many ways. 

And turning that into what is relevant for them. Anne spoke about the organizational objectives and how it has to be aligned with that. So again, you know what are their pitch points, what are their pain points? What are their struggles and challenges with their teams and organisations? And we need to join those up. 

The second mechanism is giving leaders the opportunity to go through, so energy strain and recovering measurements. So we use wearable technology and we can actually measure what's happening in the day, at work and indeed outside of work, in terms of battery power coming down, the level of strain and when we're recharging and re-energizing as well.

And there's a beautiful moment where people see their own data or this X ray of their own day and go, wow, that's what a day of back to back online meetings looks like, versus a day where I can get my head down and really engage in some energizing, enjoyable, strategically important work. 

Similarly, this is what these lifestyle behaviors do to me, and this is what these other lifestyle behaviors do to me. So that can be really, really powerful and quite profound in terms of that leadership engagement. 

00:14:01 Karen Plum

And it sounds like, as with any change that we're trying to make, we need a proper change process. Anne can you outline some of the basic principles that we need to put in place when we're trying to make this sort of a change with people - other than just showing them the impact of their data? 

00:14:20 Anne Balle

I completely agree, of course, and I think Ken and Trevor have already covered the main parts of it, which is very much in any change process - its leadership engagement and I think one of the things you can do here, because especially what the gentlemen here are talking about, is something that's pretty measurable, and it can become very visual. 

The whole element in change processes also of monitoring and evaluating because all of a sudden you know leaders that may not have been engaged before, once they actually see the effects of this and the results of this, they will be motivated to come on board. 

So you know, just generally, constantly coming back to the success criteria. What are we trying to achieve? How are we doing? Is there any progress? Maybe in some of these teams where team leads really have been engaging, there is excellent progress and they can showcase that, and I think that's a super important part of that change process. 

00:15:17 Karen Plum

We're talking about the process of change and making this strategic. What are the pitfalls of not taking a strategic approach to this and not really doing it in the way that we're discussing? 

00:15:31 Ken van Someren

Well, I think the first pitfall is throwing money down the hole, to be honest and an awful lot of money can be spent. Discussions over spring time, you know hearing of global organisations, but just their UK outfits alone spending astronomical amounts of money on wellbeing programs from in some cases, over 60 providers for one company. 

Now this is great in terms of what's offered to employees, but we know from industry research that there's a massive disconnect between provision and engagement. And clearly if there's a disconnect or mismatch between provision and engagement, there's going to be an even larger one between provision and impact and return on investment.

So unless it all joins up and Anne spoke about this really nicely earlier on, it has to align to the company objectives. What's important to them and what are you trying to achieve? So I think that's the first point and aligned to that as again Anne said, they need to evaluate progress and impact. I think that is really important. Yes, there's an argument that says, well, we know this is the right thing to do for our people, so let's invest and that's very nice, philanthropic! But most organisations need to achieve more than that, and there's a combination of things we can do here. 

We can look at the wellbeing and the energy levels and the cognitive function of individuals. We can do a team level as well, so again using some of this technology and we can work with organisations to say, well, what are the metrics that matter most to you and we absolutely should be identifying those up front and then measuring them and evaluating them over time. 

Otherwise we are at risk of shooting in the dark here. So that's sort of one area of pitfalls and I think the second one perhaps aligned to that is, there really is no one size fits all, I think for all the reasons that we've all been talking about. Yes there's good principles, but actually how we embed it, we've used that term so many times already, embedding it. 

How we do that depends on the organization, their culture, their ways of working, and what their particular challenges are. Trevor spoke about campaigns and unfortunately a lot of money has been spent on campaigns and what they tend to do is engage those people who already into wellbeing and you know cycle to work schemes are great, but very often what they do is incentivize those who already do a lot of cycling - spend more money on a new bike and get some bonuses by doing that. 

The translation into actually making the behavior change and the wellbeing change for those who need it most or who could benefit the most, isn't always there. So I think there are some of the key pitfalls to watch out for. 

00:18:42 Karen Plum

And I guess what you're referring to at least tangentially, there is the presence of proper change management so that people understand or have the opportunity to understand what's in it for them to be supported. 

Anne, I'm sure you've got plenty of examples of where the change management has been poor, but what are the risks here if we don't do it properly? 

00:19:02 Anne Balle

How much time do we have, Karen? I think first of all change management - we throw that word around - what do we mean by that? Really it's about supporting changes to human behavior. Now, if we want to support changes to human behavior, people need to rationally understand how they need to change behavior. Why? What that's going to achieve for them? What they need to do. What are the new habits they need to adopt? 

But that's not enough. They've also got to be motivated to do so, so they not only need the rational understanding, they also need an emotional engagement. This is what I find to be the most difficult thing. There's so much going on, there's so much information, there are so many good things you could be doing. So what's going to make you emotionally engaged, to want to focus specifically on changing these habits in a world where there are so many other priorities on the short term. 

So that's sort of one of the pitfalls I would say of not getting that right. Developing that clear change management process that's going to give you both the rational understanding and the emotional engagement of your people. 

00:20:16 Karen Plum

Can I ask you what you mean by emotional engagement? What does that look like? 

00:20:21 Anne Balle

I think it's a question of being motivated to actually adopt those new habits. So we don't want to adopt new habits, we’re sort of - our brain is hardwired to use the habits that we already have and not to have to create new ones because that just takes a lot of energy. 

So we need to be sufficiently emotionally engaged to actually override that mechanism of just falling back on old habits, and that's quite a big thing to be able to do. 

00:20:50 Karen Plum

Yeah, so I'm motivated to want to give this a try. 

00:20:54 Anne Balle

Yes exactly. 

00:20:55 Ken van Someren

Yes, just to build on that from an individual and a team perspective, so that really resonates with what we do around behavior change and habit change strategy, because again, sometimes through the power of data or just people being better informed and having eyes open to what is possible here in terms of enhancing their battery power and their wellbeing for performance.

So some of what we do is very much one to one or one to few wellbeing coaching and this is all about the gain has to be greater than the effort required, so it's all about how can we make very often quite small nudges or quite small changes for big impacts. Because we know - any coach, business coach or sports coach or anyone else is going to know - if you're trying to get people to do something that takes enormous effort, they inevitably will not stick to it. 

So firstly, they need the reason to believe, so what is the goal? And we spoke about the organizations need to know what they're trying to do here. Individuals and teams and leaders need to know as well. Really clear sight of what this means for me and we get people thinking about, you know, if you were to improve your wellbeing, what would you do with that? Because it's all well and good saying oh great, my wellbeing’s better, but wo what? What do you want to do with it? Is it go home less stressed so you're not shouting at your partner and kids? Is it have more energy at the weekend to do more exercise? Is it being more productive and in better mood at work? Is it increased sales or get the next promotion, whatever it might be, but it's gotta be really personal and tangible to you. 

And then it's a case of, well, what are the steps that we need to put in place to do that and a lot of these wellbeing for performance habits and behaviors can be relatively small tweaks. And very often it's about getting the basics right, thinking about the quality of our rest and recovery, thinking about how we structure our day so we're not frying our minds with back to back online meetings. Taking just a couple of minutes every hour just to pause, reduce the strain and recharge.

Completely agree with what Anne was saying there both at an individual and organizational level. The site of the gain and the benefit has to exceed the effort that goes in, otherwise it simply won't stick. 

00:23:25 Karen Plum

Anne is there a danger that as we focus more and more on individual performance and making sure that people have absolutely the right support and have what they need, et cetera, are we creating also a culture of entitlement? 

00:23:41 Anne Balle

I think that definitely can be a pitfall, especially in the world today where the war for talent is a real thing. Everybody wants to be the most amazing place to work, and we're catering to those individual needs and it becomes very much a focus on ‘me’ and ‘my’ and that really contradicts what we're trying to do, 'cause that doesn't necessarily create a culture - if you're creating a culture of entitlement, that's not necessarily particularly considerate. 

It doesn't necessarily create a community that's kind or sustainable with regards to wellbeing. It could be the opposite of having a sense of psychological safety and trust and community and connectedness, so it's actually counterproductive of what we're trying to achieve. And I think it's so important in all this, not just talking about what's the organization going to do for you, but really focusing on how do employees need to contribute themselves to create a culture where wellbeing is in the focus. 

What can we do? What are what are the attitudes and the values that we are bringing to work every day? How am I contributing to my team, to create a community that feels psychologically safe, so we can trust each other and where we can thrive. 

There's a lot of individual responsibility in that - it's not just up to the organization, and I think the organizations that are going to succeed with this are the ones that dare to also ask something here of their staff and not just the other way around. 

00:25:29 Karen Plum

Yeah, so it's about getting the balance right, isn't it? And that takes us back to the strategy, indeed and what we're trying to achieve. 

So just to wrap up for organisations that are thinking about doing this sort of thing, where's a good place to start? 

00:25:45 Trevor Alldridge

Let me sort of set the scene on that by saying. I think the first thing that has to happen is that leaders or senior team members must first acknowledge that organizational goals linked to performance, quality and innovation are harder to achieve unless everyone is at their best. It may be possible to go flat out for a while, but only when wellbeing is embedded, as part of the working culture, can the highest levels be sustained over long periods by people who have the resilience to take it in their stride, who have the built capacity to be able to perform well and to remain at their very best. 

00:26:28 Ken van Someren

I think we have to start with the why, of course we do, and it's identifying what the problem we're trying to solve is, or put in more performance language - what's the opportunity that we're trying to seize here? And I spoke earlier about the problem might not be entirely visible. Sickness, absenteeism is visible. 

People operating at 80% rather than 100% probably isn't particularly visible, and I think it takes a really proactive and ambitious organization and leadership team to start exploring the art of the possible and just say now, how much better could we all be? And yes, there's an individual responsibility to that, there's definitely team and team ship, which is critical to this and of course what the organization can do to support it. 

So I think the place to start is really clear. Why are we doing this, what do we want to achieve? 

00:27:29 Karen Plum

What are you trying to achieve? Such a great question. Are you following the fashion by implementing a bunch of disconnected initiatives to give the impression that the organization cares about wellbeing? Or is there something very strategic that you're trying to address? Maybe a shortcoming or a much-needed change in direction for which even a small improvement of performance would make all the difference. 

My thanks to Anne, Trevor and Ken for exploring the importance of looking at wellbeing strategically. I hope we've given you food for thought. If you'd like to connect with any of our speakers to discuss the topic further, please drop me a message. There are details in our show notes

00:28:14 CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.