Workplace Wellbeing – Get the Fundamentals Right First

By Brian Crooke; wellness consultant, speaker and trainer.

The landscape of workplace wellness has changed significantly in Ireland in recent years. The idea that wellness in the workplace consists of bean bags, table tennis and a yoga class here and there is still the opinion of some however this view is dying out as we gain a greater understanding of what a healthy workplace really is.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines a healthy workplace as:

“…one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace…”

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Changing Landscape

Thanks to the emergence of healthy workplace accreditations in Ireland such as Ibec’s KeepWell Mark and Great Place to Work, Irish businesses are learning that a long-term holistic strategy is required to develop sustainable and meaningful workplace wellness programmes as opposed to random acts of wellness that do little more than tick a box.

Dedicated wellness roles in Irish companies are emerging too and education in the area is catching up. In recent years, NUIG launched a post grad in Workplace Wellness and workplace wellbeing modules were introduced to the Trinity Business School in 2018 by Dr. Sarah-Jane Cullinane.

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Get the Fundamentals Right First

Having fantastic wellness initiatives and facilities for staff is great but before you even think about choosing the interventions it’s important the correct foundation is in place. Effective wellbeing programmes are built upon a culture of trust, open communication and committed leadership. Without these building blocks, the chances of wellbeing initiatives being successful are greatly diminished.

If employees don’t feel supported at work, if they are overloaded with tasks, imminent deadlines and other work stressors, they are not going to care and will not make time for the exercise class or the healthy food demo. As for the free mindfulness app included in the benefits package? Let’s just say that won’t prove too popular.

Establishing a culture of trust and open communication is essential so that employees can openly voice concerns and put their hand up without fear of ridicule if something isn’t right. Laying this foundation of trust takes time and it must come from the top. Management teams that promote healthy behaviours themselves and who genuinely care about the health and wellbeing of their employees can go a long way to establishing this trust.

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A Culture of Health

Fostering a culture of health in the workplace should always be the long-term goal. Company culture is what happens within the organisation on a daily and weekly basis when the cameras are off. Where supporting healthy behaviours is the done thing; the norm.

What are the cultural norms you would like a new employee to experience at your workplace? For me, a culture of health is one where I see the CEO walk past my desk at 11AM on a Monday on his way to the gym. It’s one where the healthy food choice is the easy choice in the staff canteen. It’s one where leaders encourage their teams to switch off in the evening time. It’s all of this and more, it’s a flexible working environment that promotes healthy behaviours and supports the modern employee doing the best job they can around their lifestyle.

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Irish Companies Leading by Example

Kuehne + Nagel are a global logistics company with 380 employees in Ireland. Having engaged a number of wellbeing initiatives for colleagues directed at physical wellbeing it became clear they were missing the “elephant in the room” as they noticed a trend of increased mental health issues in their annual survey. Human Resources Director, Garry McCabe and the management team decided this was an area where they could make a comprehensive impact.

They partnered with mental health charity Suicide or Survive who provided education and training for every colleague. The results have been impressive. More than 25% of colleagues have been directly engaged in conversations and support with the company. An amazing statistic when you consider the courage needed to inform your employer that you’re struggling. Colleagues clearly feel that Kuehne + Nagel is now a safer workplace for anyone struggling with mental health challenges.

A management team committed to supporting their employees, establishing trust and allowing for open communication can lead to impressive results. As Garry himself admits there is still a long way to go however a solid foundation has been established to build future wellbeing initiatives upon.

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Developing a Wellbeing Programme

A 2018 review of evidence on the effectiveness of workplace health promotion and wellness programmes entitled “Do Workplace Wellbeing Programmes Work?” by Robert Murphy at the HSE concluded;

“…there is strong evidence of a favourable effect of workplace wellbeing programmes on the health behaviours of physical activity and smoking cessation; on the health outcomes of weight and BMI, stress/distress, anxiety and depression, and mental wellbeing; and the organisational outcomes of work ability and sickness absences”.

Great to see this quality Irish research highlighting that workplace wellbeing programmes can be beneficial to both employer and employee. My advice is not to jump straight in to choosing the interventions though. Work to get the fundamentals right first and then start developing your programme.

About the author

Brian Crooke is a wellness consultant, speaker and trainer specialising in the development and delivery of workplace wellness programmes for Irish companies through his Office Worker Health business. He is also the founder of the Workplace Wellness Ireland community and 8 Step Framework to Workplace Wellness Programme Development. In his spare time he is bringing free resistance training to every county and community in Ireland through his parkHIIT project.

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