The unspoken privilege of wellbeing

Two women talking in a pleasant and well designed office, one on a bench the other a swing, to illustrate the importance of wellbeingI sat in the main hall at a recent conference, listening to the keynote presentation. A Head of HR at a large manufacturing company described the implementation of their wellbeing strategy over the last year. So far, so important. There is no doubt that the conversation around wellbeing has been rightly amplified, as employees are seeking to gain and maintain more life in their work-life balance. However, as I sat there listening, I became uncomfortable. Seriously uncomfortable. Then I became cross.

For context, I attend a lot of conferences about wellbeing, and rarely have my emotions stirred beyond mutual excitement at a shared purpose (and perhaps a slight sense of regret that the conversations haven’t developed further over the years). It is unusual for a conference to make me cross, and yet here I was, sitting on my hands to stop myself interrupting the keynote. What was it that got me so riled? The total lack of inclusivity.

I have spent the majority of my career in safety-critical industries. This means that when something goes wrong, it really goes wrong (one of my roles was within the atomic weapons sector). As a result, for many years I have been banging the drum that health issues are safety issues, and that we have to prioritise the wellbeing of our front-line and shop-floor workers. Protecting their health and wellbeing matters the most. Yet, whilst most conversations are shouted from the rooftops, this seems to be the one area where people fall silent. Shuffle awkwardly. Avoid eye contact.

What is causing the discomfort? The unspoken privilege of wellbeing.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A wellbeing strategy by definition has to support everyone’s wellbeing.[/perfectpullquote]

Listening to the aforementioned Head of HR talking, all the positive intentions were there. They proudly spoke about how they encouraged regular breaks, walking meetings, and even got their senior leaders to share with their teams when they took a break, or flexed their hours, to go and collect their children from school. This was to demonstrate the prioritising of wellbeing over business and to role-model good practice.

I sat there and thought of all the colleagues I work with who are on trade-union-mandated shift patterns. Those who have a clock-in and clock-out schedule. Those colleagues who don’t see their children during the working week, and who would love to go and collect their children from school, but cannot. Those colleagues who have zero flexibility built into their working day. What about their wellbeing? Was this global manufacturing company really telling us that their wellbeing strategy only worked for Head Office (which accounted for fewer than 8 percent of their total employees)? What about everyone else?

I approached the speaker afterwards and asked what was in place for their manufacturing and shop floor workers and was greeted with a blank expression and a ‘well it is very challenging’ dismissal. End of discussion.

The conversations around workplace wellbeing seem to have been reduced to revolve around those with access to a company phone (walking meetings), a company laptop (work remotely) and autonomy over their diary, or the seniority to push back on meeting requests in favour of a wellbeing activity. What about everyone else? Are we really satisfied that wellbeing strategies serve the minority in a company and everyone else just has to…get on with it? We have to do better.

A wellbeing strategy by definition has to support everyone’s wellbeing. Warehouse employees want to feel as happy and healthy as those shaking hands with clients in HQ, and it isn’t good enough to say that they are ‘hard to reach’.

I have worked with multiple trade-unions making significant changes to policies on breaks, shift-patterns and movement at work, in order to ensure that the basics of wellbeing (eating, sleeping and exercise) are met. People don’t engage in these discussions for fear of upsetting trade unions, but ultimately, we all want the same aim, for our employees to be happy and healthy. If all of your employees have good wellbeing then that’s good for business, it’s good for your reputation and it’s good for your bottom line.

In an era where employees would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for better workplace wellbeing, it’s also good for recruiting and retaining top talent. We have to recognise the unspoken privilege of wellbeing and give a voice to those who are left out of the Teams calls or online surveys about wellbeing practices.

If we don’t change our approach, then the very strategies which are implemented to support our employees, will only breed discontent as they highlight the lack of consideration of entire populations of employees. People feel forgotten and ignored, and you don’t need a survey to tell you that’s negatively impacting on their wellbeing. The pandemic forced a division between those who could stay at home and those who had to go into the workplace, and our strategies will either repair that crack, or cement it in place forever.

Consider everyone in your wellbeing strategy and ask yourself if it is fit for purpose. We all have health. We all have wellbeing. The actions we take next are vital in overcoming and eradicating the unspoken privilege of wellbeing.