Enhancing Wellbeing in the Workplace
The morning alarm jolts you awake, and you roll over to swat the snooze button – just like that, Monday has come again, along with another working week. You mourn the freedoms of the weekend and drag yourself out of bed whilst wondering why your alarm’s tone is so irritating. “I need coffee”, you think. “And I need another holiday soon.”
Is this scenario familiar? For many people, the daily act of getting ready to go to work (or its Pandemic sister, login to work) can be daunting, especially for those whose workplaces lack measures to enhance (and maintain) staff wellbeing. But does it have to be this way?
In this article, we explore how organisations can modify their working environment to foster wellbeing amongst workers. We start by taking a look at the factors that create a functioning workplace.
Factors of a functioning workplace
Before outlining strategies for enhancing workplace wellbeing, we must identify and understand the constituents of an individual employee’s experience. A literature review by the Black Dog Institute has identified five main dynamics which interplay to determine the wellbeing of an individual within an organisation:
- The design of the job. The control the worker has over their work is vital to feeling autonomous and significant – they must be provided with the resources they require, be aware of the specific characteristics of their tasks, and be aware of any potential to be exposed to traumatic experiences.
- Team/group factors. The quality of the relationships amongst peers dictates workplace wellbeing, and leaders must ensure that adequate support and communication avenues are present.
- Organisational factors. How the organisation enacts changes from the top down can affect the self-esteem of its workers. Depending on how this is managed, workers can be made to feel significant and safe, or unimportant and vulnerable. How the organisation handles accolades and justice is also relevant here.
- Home/work conflict. The degree to which significant life events interfere with work conduct or performance must be understood by the leaders of the workplace, and appropriate measures must be taken to attend to this.
- Individual biopsychosocial factors. Each persons’ unique genetics and cognitive/behavioural patterns also interplay with the aforementioned dynamics.
With these five factors in mind, we can begin to build a picture of how we might attend to levels of workplace wellbeing. Each employee interacts with an active network of these dynamics constantly throughout their working hours; the culture of the workplace, therefore, must provide space for these dynamics to appear and interact in safe and stable ways. Currently, this is not the case, with 21% of the Australian public sector workplace requiring leave from their employment in 2019 due to mental health concerns. Based on that number, one might assume that it is simply too difficult to balance all five of the aforementioned dynamics – but the authorities on the subject claim that it just takes time and focus to gauge the climate of a workforce and to adjust it accordingly (Beyond Blue, 2019). The subtle saliency of adjusting the psychological factors of a workplace might explain the lack of focus in this area; this is ill–considered, however, and neglects to acknowledge the broader benefits of a healthy workplace.
What can we do?
Based on an analysis of more than 16,000 Australian employees, six domains have been proposed by the Australian Public Sector (APS) Commission as a Mental Health Capability Framework. These domains can provide workplaces with a narrower focus for where to direct resources and energy when it comes to the psychological wellbeing of their workers.
Domain 1: Prevent Harm
It goes without saying that a workplace should be designed in such a way that the potential for harm – both physical and psychological – is mitigated. Feelings of safety are prerequisite to actualising oneself.
Domain 2: Promote Mental Health
Staff should be provided with ample opportunity to engage in evidence–informed mental wellbeing initiatives with the intention to enhance psychosocial protection.
Domain 3: Support Recovery Pathways
Frameworks should be developed to assist staff in returning to work and staying at work once a mental health related absence has occurred.
Domain 4: Build Literacy and Develop Capability
A culture of understanding and familiarity around mental health should be built; this will assist staff in understanding the psychological wellbeing of themselves and their peers.
Domain 5: Leadership and Governance
The leadership team of the workplace should be visible and accessible to employees. A personal approach to workplace governance will further instil staff with feelings of significance and importance.
Domain 6: Evaluate and Improve
A workplace should continually engage in evidence-based practices to improve their practices.
Although these six domains cover a lot of ground, there is a common factor that is present amongst them: communication. Without open and compassionate passages of communication, each of these domains cannot be fully satisfied. Studies within the field of occupational psychology have found that a workplace culture with an emotionally receptive leadership team can directly influence workers’ sense of purpose, meaning, and connection, whilst mitigating potential for trauma, fatigue, and isolation (Global Centre for Healthy Workplaces, 2019). A lapse in communication can affect all of the six proposed domains; this can create a feedback loop in which, for example, an incident at home could affect performance at work, and a lack of understanding from the leadership team could further exacerbate the effect of the initial incident.
Collegial care and psychological acceptance
While the leadership team is the driving force behind mental–wellbeing initiatives, the individual worker must also take ownership over maintaining their own wellbeing. Psychological acceptance is a personal quality that relates to a willingness to experience thoughts and feeling without avoidance or submission (Bond & Donaldo-Feilder, 2004), and this is developed through propagating a focus on one’s internal fluctuations of sensations. When workers can remain present with their work and their colleagues in the midst of tumultuous situations, they are better positioned to stay level–headed and provide support for one another when needed. Being surrounded by a team who hold this skill amplifies feelings of safety and acceptance, whilst dissolving feelings of isolation, alienation, and the stigmatising of one’s experience.
Stigma is a tricky, however powerful, phenomenon. It is powerful because it relates to rejection, discrimination, and negative perception, and it is tricky because it is often transmitted from person to person subconsciously. Stigma is rarely something that is built and spread intentionally – rather, is seems to arise through people’s automatic reactions, and is spread through others’ sensitivity to these reactions and their tendencies to mirror the attitudes of those around them. Stigma that is propagated intentionally by an individual is more aptly seen as bullying, which is an equally harmful yet different phenomenon – bullying occurs through the actions of individuals, whereas stigma arises within the culture of the workplace itself.
For example, a 2010 report by Medibank Health Solutions suggests that a large percentage of workers who disclosed their mental health issues have experiences workplace discrimination, with only 22% of workers receiving treatment or support. It can be assumed that these people weren’t bullied by their leadership team directly – they were affected by the overall manner in which their organisation views mental health as a concept. The values of the organisation will influence the values of its workers, so it is necessary to develop top–down frameworks for opening compassionate dialogues surrounding mental health. Without this, workers will feel the need to downplay their struggles, over–commit to their work as a distraction, or view themselves as weak and inept.
Most techniques to change the conversation surrounding mental health in a workplace are based on exposure and familiarisation. The leadership team might place informational posters in bathrooms or self–care books on coffee tables, or staff meetings might involve the workers discussing their recent experiences, moods, and wellness methods.
Workplace hazards: burnout, compassion fatigue & trauma
Though interpersonal relations are a vital aspect of mental wellbeing in the workplace, some professions are innately more prone to exposure to difficult circumstances. For example, those who work in criminal rehabilitation programs would experience more high-octane situations than a filing clerk. While collegial care is just as important in both workplaces, the more high-octane position brings with it additional factors that must be acknowledged. These are burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma.
Burnout is not uncommon, and it can result in emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach et al., 1996). When in this state, workers can feel unable to contribute their best self, they can develop negative or cynical attitudes towards one’s work and have poor self–evaluation regarding the quality of one’s work.
Compassion fatigue is caused by repeatedly seeing bad things happen to good people, and can lead to ambivalence towards their clients, patients, or customers. Survivor-blaming can result from this, and this type of pessimism can be a barrier to building rapport and building meaningful connections.
Trauma can arise both directly and vicariously. Some lines of work involve a direct encounter with danger, such as firefighting or paramedic work – alternatively, a worker could find themselves face-to-face with somebody else’s trauma, such as in a clinical psychology office. Regardless, trauma triggers key areas of a person’s psychological make-up, such as safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control.
It takes regimented self-care and adequate supervision to move through the previous three hazards. Eleanor Brown states “Rest and self-care are so important. When you take the time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel”. The ways in which self-care can be promoted through the workplace include discussion surrounding the concept, helpful activities during working hours, and encouragement to engage with good exercise/diet habits, but it is ultimately up to each individual to find what makes them feel balanced and fulfilled within themselves. Workers can discover this quality by asking such questions as ‘what makes me feel connected to myself and others?’; ‘how do I promote my physical wellness?’; or ‘what are my values and how do I maintain them daily?’. Having a firm grounding within oneself can equip workers with the clarity and stability needed to handle the hazards that can arise in their workplace, and the emotional fallout thereof.
Workplace wellbeing is the springboard from which employees can jump towards professional and personal fulfilment. While there are broad movements towards greater focus in this area, there are still gaps in awareness that must be closed. Spreading a culture of mental health familiarity and receptiveness is vital for forming healthy workplaces, heathy people, and a healthy culture.
Recommended reading: Identifying and Managing Therapist Burnout
- Australian Department of Energy, Science and Industry Resources (2020). APS mental health capability project: initial report.
- Black Dog Institute. (2014). Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces; A review of the research. Retrieved from: Website.
- Bond, F. W., & Donaldso–Feilder, E. J. (2004). The relative importance of psychological acceptance and emotional intelligence to workplace well–being. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 32(2), 187–203. Retrieved from: Website.
- Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E., & Leiter, M. P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory manual (3rd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Medibank Health Solutions. (2010). Workplace wellness in Australia. Aligning action with aims: Optimising the benefits of workplace wellness. PricewaterhouseCoopers. Retrieved from: Website.