Has the pendulum swung too far towards wellbeing? 

Has the pendulum swung too far towards wellbeing? 

“I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way”.  

These words were shared with one of our team-members recently in hushed tones, as if admitting to a serious error of judgement or something terribly embarrassing.  

Since the pandemic, many organisations have become much more comfortable talking about employee wellbeing and acting to support their people’s physical and mental health. This growing emphasis on wellbeing at work has generally been regarded as ‘a good thing’. Indeed, we’ve previously shared our support for a systematic and comprehensive approach to employee wellbeing.   

But has the pendulum swung too far towards wellbeing, neglecting productivity and performance? Has hard work become something to be avoided for fear of damaging people’s mental health? 

The arguments in favour  

The primary goal of any organisation is to create value. That value might be for customers, shareholders, service users, and/or society. For employee-owned organisations, it might also be to create value for employees. But whilst an organisation’s people are a key asset in that value creation, they’re not the only asset that needs to be considered and however uncaring it may sound, the organisation needs employees – first and foremost – to create that value. 

Wellness initiatives can certainly help to create a positive working environment but when those initiatives distract from a focus on delivery and productivity, they can begin to work against the primary needs of the organisation, shifting expectations of what an individual should contribute to their workplace in exchange for pay, benefits, career progression etc. 

Good managers already consider the capacity of their team when allocating work or setting deadlines and respond to the different needs and capability of their team members. An over-emphasis on wellbeing prevents managers from making the best decisions for the business and can lead to unequal distribution of work or avoiding difficult conversations about someone’s level of performance. 

Finally, the occasional ‘wellness day off’ may be a sensible way of relieving pressures in a busy role, but it usually can’t solve for or remedy the physical or psychological challenges that many people experience as part of life. Extended time off at scale has a considerable impact on UK productivity, with 17 million working days lost due to stress, anxiety and depression in 2021/22. So, although an organisation has a basic duty of care to its people, endless tick-box wellbeing activities won’t get to the root cause of the issue and lead to increased value creation.  

The arguments against 

Value creation goes far beyond generating profit and people are at the heart of unlocking the wider benefits of creating a successful organisation. Brand reputation, talent attraction and retention, innovation all stem from having a thriving workforce engaged with their work and committed to the long-term success of their employer. 

Although the renewed interest and emphasis on wellbeing is a good start, there’s still much further to go. According to Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2023 report, only 23% of employees are thriving at work with 59% quiet quitting and 18% loud quitting.  

38% of UK workers experience considerable work-related stress each day, and 19% experience anger at work daily. Chronic stress leads to various physical and mental health issues ranging from headaches, fatigue and poor sleep to cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune system, and depression. When stress levels repeatedly exceed someone’s ability to cope, it can quickly lead to burnout. Moreover, the research shows that stress also impacts on work performance, reducing engagement and productivity, and increasing intention to quit. 

Some organisations have begun to step up, and as a result they’re having more dialogue – and more constructive dialogue – around wellbeing and its interplay with work. But in other organisations, wellbeing initiatives can unfortunately be superficial or ad-hoc, treating the symptoms not the cause. What use is an intranet article on desk yoga when you’ve got a toxic boss, excessive workload and competing priorities?! Of course, we’re being a little provocative to make the point, but some believe there’s more lip-service paid to employee wellbeing (so-called ‘well-washing’) than real commitment to tackle the systemic challenges (and opportunities) around wellbeing at work. 

Our view: it’s not a pendulum at all 

Whilst it might be tempting to see this as a binary choice between wellbeing and performance, we see it differently. Instead of a pendulum swinging from one side to the other, we see it as two sides of the same coin. There are differences, of course, but together wellbeing and performance can combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. 

The two aspects can be mutually reinforcing. Within the right culture, a focus on work goals and objectives can be very good for our health. Working hard can give us a sense of meaning and purpose, enable personal development and growth, and provide a sense of community and belonging. And when people experience high wellbeing, they are more likely to engage and flourish at work 

Our approach to healthy performing teams helps organisations to get the best of both wellbeing and performance, both at a team and individual level: 

  • Engagement: when we feel valued and well supported at work, we’re more likely to give discretionary effort, take greater care in the quality of our work, and seek out additional responsibilities, leading to improved performance. 
  • Resilience: when our wellbeing is high, we’re better equipped to deal with knockbacks and challenges such as changing business priorities, market volatility 
  • Innovation: when we experience positive emotions at work we’re more likely to think creatively and identify opportunities and solutions, that might not otherwise have been found. 
  • Productivity: healthier employees are less likely to be absent, and happier employees are more likely to want to stay, reducing turnover. 
  • Performance: because high-performance cultures in which people are working towards and achieving work goals and objectives, also supports their well-being. 

For all these benefits, managers play a crucial – and sometimes overlooked – role. Indeed, managers usually have the biggest day-to-day impact on individuals’ experience of work. Our approach enables managers to create a positive work environment and lead by example, as part of a systemic approach to wellbeing. 

We’d love to talk more about how we can support you and your teams to enjoy the mutually reinforcing connections between wellbeing and productivity, so get in touch to find out more. 

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