Starting at the Top: How to get Senior Management to drive your wellbeing culture

Aligned Wellbeing Culture

How to get Senior Management to Drive Wellbeing Culture

In a former life – before the concept of mental wellbeing was widely acknowledged or embraced – I had management oversight of approximately one hundred soldiers in my role as the second in command of an army squadron. Whilst our ethos very much considered the welfare of our people, as soon as the term “mental health” was whispered, we defaulted to the doctor, welfare officer or padre in order to hand on the case and let the experts take over.

What prevented us, as leaders and managers, from being more involved or feeling comfortable picking up on these cases earlier?

If I’m honest, it was probably a combination of lack of knowledge and fear. Not being mental health experts and the fear of getting things wrong often led to inaction and prevented us from achieving the early interventions that we now know can be so impactful in resolving cases of poor mental health without necessarily having to medicalise them.

I have seen this situation replicated in pretty much every organisation I have worked in or for; it tends to be left to the supporting functions – HR departments, medical support staff or even dedicated wellbeing teams – to drive the narrative around mental wellbeing, albeit with an introductory nod from a senior sponsor.

Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly cases that do require expert support, but I believe that, in many cases, managers are best placed to pick up on the signs of poor mental health early and do something about it.

From what I see, this is still very much the case in the majority of organisations, with HR departments often seen as the natural home for anything vaguely related to wellbeing. Whilst this may seem sensible, it also gives managers an opt-out. This is particularly challenging at a time when there is such a need but also such an opportunity.

So, what holds us back? In this post, I’ll explore some of the factors that play into this and what can be done to bring about positive change in this area.

We are at a fork in the road

Along with many and varied challenges, the changes brought about by the pandemic have brought a number of opportunities to reassess the world of work and our wider societal attitudes. Amongst those is the opportunity to normalise conversations around mental health. If we are honest with ourselves, almost everyone has experienced a decline in their mental health and so, as a society, perhaps we have achieved a wider insight into challenges that some of our colleagues, friends and neighbours have been dealing with long before lockdown. So, the fork that we collectively find ourselves at provides us with two options; do we continue to avoid potentially difficult conversations about how we’re thinking, feeling and behaving? Or, with some education and courage, do we start to deal with issues that have previously been ignored in the vain hope that they would resolve themselves?

The paradox

However, just at a time when there is such an opportunity, it seems that we are letting it slip through our collective fingers. A recent report from the CIPD[1] found that there has been a drop in managers that have bought into the importance of wellbeing, dropping from 67% in 2021 to 60% for 2022.

It’s worth considering why that might be. Is it because of a drop in their own wellbeing and so they feel less able to support others? Is it because they have been overwhelmed by the needs of their team during the pandemic and instead of upskilling themselves or seeking support, they simply put their head in the sand?

Whatever the reason, it’s worth trying to understand the reason that mental health and wellbeing is slipping down the agenda at a time when it should be a priority.

Not only because supporting employees is the right thing to do but because it can only have a negative effect on an organisation and its capacity for sustainable performance; when productivity goes down and senior management is looking for explanations, will they put two and two together or will confirmation bias take over and lead them to an alternative conclusion?

This isn’t going away as the CIPD report confirms that COVID will continue to impact workers for some time and needs to be factored into organisational plans, particularly with regards to effective mental health support.

If they don’t, employers could well lose valuable employees at a time of severe skills shortages, particularly amongst younger workers amongst which there is often a generational expectation that their mental health will be considered as part of the work experience.

Furthermore, the Great Resignation has shown that people want more than money and traditional benefits. Once senior management appreciate that, amongst this potential shortage, a supportive culture is vital to recruitment and retention it will only add to the commercial as well as ethical imperative to take action.

Wellbeing is part of organisational resilience and sustainability.

So, if Senior Managers want a resilient, sustainable organisation that can confidently adapt to the permacrisis that we seem to find ourselves in recently, they can have all the plans and processes they want but, unless the culture is supportive and conducive to such mindsets, they are always going to working with one arm tied behind their back.

Organisational responses to Covid were often led by Business Continuity Plans that understandably focus on the practicalities and logistics of remote working to keep things moving. But I wonder how many of those responses even considered the psychological aspects of such a change when, I many cases, the biggest block to continuity was people’s ability to deal with the many and varied stressors of lockdown.

Senior Management can shout as loud as they want that they business as usual but without engaging with and accounting for the primary obstacle to that happening, efforts are always going to be hampered. But this isn’t new; for many years – even before it was recorded

Wellbeing skills need to be seen as a key function of leadership and built into management competencies.

The CIPD report brings more disappointing news, reporting that there has also been a drop in the proportion of HR professionals who think senior leaders encourage a focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviours, falling from 48% in 2021 to 42% in 2022.

As well as the incentive – commercial, operational, or ethical – managers at all levels need the means with which to occupy the middle ground between ignorance and expertise when it comes to mental health.

But this isn’t a comfortable place to get to and can only really happen if they get there with their team. Leaders at all levels have a shaping impact on their organisation’s culture and it’s within their control to influence an environment where people feel comfortable to ask for help, whether that’s with their central role or their mental health.

What’s more, they can shape an environment that doesn’t cause unnecessary stress in the first place – accepting that much of that is down to how people are or aren’t managed. Whilst the intent at the top of an organisation can have the right intention, with policies to reinforce it, a lot can lost in translation as authority and responsibility trickles from the CEO down.

Remove the obstacles

None of this is easy, quick or cheap; it takes time, space and yes, money, but above all courage and self-assurance to deal with. Managers, even those enthusiasts out there, can often find it a daunting prospect to approach matters that they may feel is out of their comfort zone.

More than anything else, managers across organisations need the resources, structure, and confidence to build the relevant knowledge, skills and behaviours across their teams and into the normal flow of work. This is not something that can be achieved overnight but by taking a long-term and properly resourced approach that doesn’t expect miracles overnight.

Don’t let them think that, by signing up to a wellbeing app, that they have done their job; they haven’t.

I am firmly of the opinion that employee wellbeing is a shared responsibility between individual employees, managers, and the wider organisation. No one entity can make it work effectively in the long-term. Recent years have seen a proliferation of technological solutions such as wellbeing apps that have flooded the market.

Whilst in principle, these can make a significant impact, the reality is that engagement rates are typically low (anecdotally between 5 and 20 percent) and often only used by the afore-mentioned enthusiasts. The result is that, despite positive impacts on some individuals, little institutional progress is achieved because app usage is not going to shift the cultural dial.

The reality is that people engage with people; cultures evolve through communication, collaboration, and collective learning. If we rely solely on self-help through technology maybe, we are simply passing that responsibility to employees and doing nothing to positively influence the working environment which may actually constitute the most significant risk factor to their mental health.

So, who is going to pick up on this opportunity and make a go of it? Does everyone just watch it slipping from their fingers? What could be a once in a generation opportunity could also become a slow-motion car crash that was avoidable. It’s down to the leaders – and managers – across organisations to understand that with some courage and commitment, we can start to see looking after our people’s wellbeing as a key function of leadership; a competency that anyone chasing promotion should be measured against.

Only when a golden thread of wellbeing culture runs through an organisation will it really thrive. 

Until supporting employee wellbeing – with an emphasis on the mental health aspects of it – is seen as a key function of leadership, I believe that we will struggle to move beyond a tick-box culture and will continue to see the negative impacts that poor employee mental health brings with it.

Why not join us live on May 11th at 13:30 BST, where we will explore actionable insights into “How to get Senior Management to drive Wellbeing Culture.”

You can register for free here.

Written by: Olly Church, Co-Founder.

[1] The Health and Wellbeing at Work 2022 Report – CIPD

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