Practical guidance for wellness at work

7th February 2024

In my last column I argued that wellness at work requires creating a healthy workplace, and not just sending staff on wellness programmes. Afterwards someone suggested I should include more practical guidance. So what should we do?

Legislation makes every manager responsible for the physical safety of their staff – ensuring that the kettle cord is not frayed, that the air-conditioning is not pumping out germs, that those engaged in risky tasks use appropriate safety equipment, and so on. These are relatively easy to monitor and describe in the big poster on the staff room wall, but mental health precautions are more difficult to pin down.

The World Health Organisation’s guidance on mental wellness boils down firstly to training managers to recognize and respond to people experiencing emotional distress. They should learn interpersonal skills like open communication and active listening, and how to foster better understanding of how job stressors affect mental health and can be managed.

Secondly, staff should be trained in mental health awareness and how to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems. Thirdly, there should be interventions to refer individuals for treatment if needed, or preventive activities like “leisure-based physical activity”.

That’s all important, but I think the real magic emerges from an organisational culture that deeply values the humanity of each person.

A key insight is that managers are not only responsible for their own behaviour, but for how their teams interact too. If one of my team is bullying another, or two are unable to work together, that is my problem. I have to deal with it as urgently as I would if the internet went down. If I can’t handle it myself, I need to call in an expert, but remain just as engaged, so I understand how to ensure the solution continues.

This is difficult without a culture in which people show respect for each other. Managers should be trained to blend the two great requirements for performance: demand and acceptance.

Focusing equal attention on task and people is leadership 101, so we may forget that each new generation of leaders has to learn it afresh. I confess I am repeatedly surprised when I come across managers who have little appreciation of the need to understand the humanity of their staff, and of well-meaning trainers and coaches who seem to believe that just being nice to everyone will get the job done.

Sometimes deep respect emerges as direct and robust feedback to someone who knows they could do better – provided the criticism is filled with evident respect and a genuine interest in the person’s growth and success. The point is that this cannot be achieved in the space of one conversation. It needs months, if not years, of patient insistence on respect for the humanity of every person, so that when those robust conversations take place, the underlying assumption is that we all want the best for each other. Achieving that is the amazing magical sauce that makes exceptional performance become common place, while bolstering mental health. People become healthy when they feel deeply respected and supported in doing tasks that have meaning for them.

The tone has to be demonstrated from the top. The top team should set aside time, at least annually, to review the humanity of the company. What are we doing that demonstrates what we say about caring? What can we stop doing that contradicts it?

This can be informed by a survey of staff perceptions. Staff perceptions can be frustratingly different from management’s perceptions and intentions, but far rather discover what they really are thinking. For most of us, wellness arises from believing we are treated with deep respect.

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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