I worked in a company once where there was a wellbeing at work problem. Sickness levels were high. Burnout was on the increase. Long-term sick leave was at a level I’d never seen it before.
It was a real problem.
And no amount of Wellness Wednesdays (an extra hour for lunch on a Wednesday), wellbeing initiatives, support clinics, yoga glasses, free fruit etc was solving the problem. In fact, even with a plethora of initiatives available to staff, wellbeing cases were on the increase. Worryingly so.
Faced with this dramatic problem (a moral and financial problem) the execs retreated to chat it through. And they had a break-through.
The problem clearly wasn’t with the business or execs, after all they had provided a plethora of initiatives to support people (at great expense). The problem must lie with the employees. They simply aren’t resilient enough.
Genius, let’s teach our people how to be more resilient.
Watch the video here, or continue below:
And so they embarked on a campaign of resilience. “Be more resilient” was the headline.
It was supported with free books on resiliences, free courses, tutorials on being more resilient.
The problem was, wellbeing cases continued to rise. In fact, after the launch of this resilience campaign, there were more sick days taken than before.
If teaching people to be more resilient didn’t solve the problem, what was going on?
Well, here’s my take on it.
The execs pushed the burden and fault of wellbeing to their employees
The execs basically said it was “your fault” to their staff.
Not only were people struggling with general wellbeing but now they had to contend with it all being their own making.
Passing the burden is one of the worst things you can do as a leader or manager.
Passing the burden stops growth, delivery, continuous improvement and high staff engagement and wellbeing.
Passing the burden is VERY easy to do in any organisation.
It’s their fault, the coaches didn’t coach, the team didn’t deliver, the partners were too slow, HR didn’t support yada yada.
It happens all of the time and I believe it’s one of the most obvious reasons why businesses struggle in many aspects of operations. It’s insidious and one of the first things I try to root out when working with companies. Own it. Don’t pass the burden. Wellbeing is NOT their fault.
They ignored the data on wellbeing
This particular company, in response to the start of the wellbeing problems, over-indexed on Employee Net Promoter and Engagement surveys.
They created an environment where people’s “happiness” and “engagement” trumped business results, dealing with poor behaviours and fixing the system of work. They believed that scoring highly on engagement surveys (and their evil twin brother the eNPS) that health and wellbeing (and profit) would be spectacularly high.
By indexing so heavily on these two numbers the entire system below them morphed, twisted and changed to meet the numbers. It’s a classic systems thinking example of measuring the wrong thing and making a system worse.
In fact, eNPS became the single most important metric for the business…even more important than the usual profit, revenue etc etc.
So much so that revenue was decreasing but eNPS was rising and this was seen as a success…..
Because of this:
- Everyone in the system below the execs changed their behaviours to meet these new “highly important” measures.
- People used engagement, wellbeing and eNPS as a way to delay projects, cover up massive spending errors and all sorts of other poor delivery problems.
- People could behave how they wished and nobody would deal with it. “We can’t upset people” was all we were told. Of course we shouldn’t aim to upset people, but surely we can talk about performance? Nope.
- Due to incentives and pay, there was mass gaming of the numbers. One of the many reasons I’m not a fan of engagement surveys.
- There were teams who were highly engaged and delivering NO value to the business at all. And to make it worse, some of these teams had the highest sick rate.
- People were gaming the numbers or hiding because they knew they could – if they claimed they weren’t engaged – anything went and whole new initiatives and organisational spend was mobilised to deal with people saying they weren’t engaged.
- Some terrible managers were threatening people with being fired if they didn’t get high engagement scores – such was the emphasis on this unscientific and unproven number.
- The whole system changed to be one of focus on staff happiness, rather than focus on keeping the business alive AND retaining our good people.
- An insidious side effect of this was that HR measured attrition and retention numbers and hated it when people left. But attrition is not always a bad thing – especially if it’s of low performing people who bring down the team. Instead, every effort was made to NEVER LOSE anyone, no matter how good they were – after all, the attrition and retention numbers were part of the eNPS system!
- So now you had very low performing people commanding big salary increases so as to not affect the eNPS!
The data about where to improve was very clear from many sources in the business, but everyone was blinded by the eNPS/engagement numbers and they believed that engaged staff meant healthy staff and big profit. Wrong.
They focused solely on people and not the system
If the managers and leaders were to ask their people what needed to be improved, they would have all the insights they needed.
Their direct reports were telling them that the system of work was broken. They couldn’t get stuff done. They didn’t have all the information. They were working with people who weren’t up to the job.
The engagement surveys were leading them astray.
People were frustrated that they were blocked, delayed or diverted from doing their real job – the one they were paid to get things done.
There were more governance review meetings than there were hours to actually get things done. Behaviours within the business were VERY poor and nobody was dealing with it – after all, we can’t tell people they’re behaving terribly (yes you can).
If they followed the work they would realise it was delayed, blocked and lost into the ether. There were single points of failure everywhere.
If they studied their system they would know how to make the system better for people – and that increases wellbeing.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD
Some leaders and managers within this business did study the real problem and see for themselves.
They fixed the systemic issues that they could. They removed the red tape (where possible). They communicated clearly. They dealt with poor behaviours. They made it clear what people’s role and contribution was.
And they had low numbers of sickness and wellbeing cases.
Whilst the majority of the leaders and managers said the people needed to be more resilient, others were saying nonsense – we are fixing the system they work in AND looking after our people through a genuine care for them.
There’s little point in caring deeply for your people and not removing the very obstacles that prevent them from bringing their best self to work and finding meaning in what they do.
Of course, even in a well run business wellbeing can still be an issue. If you are suffering please speak to phone if things get really bad.
But don’t blame yourself.
Sure, build as much resilience as you can, but the reality is, even the most resilient people will be ground down by a broken system at some point.
The system (rules, incentives, communication, reward, values, behaviours, processes, clarity etc) belong to those who can and hold a high bar of positive behaviours.
**But don’t blame yourself if the broken system is getting to you. It’s not your fault. **
This is a call to stop passing the burden and instead look at the system of work AND support people with care, attention and great HR initiatives.
- Is the system of work making it hard for people to do their job?
- How does it need to be improved? Ask those at the front line of it.
- Find people who are frustrated and ask them what you can do to help.
- Staple yourself to work and study it – then improve it.
- Deal with poor behaviours and those bringing down the team.
- Focus on the system AND your people.
- Don’t confuse high engagement/eNPS with a positive and healthy environment. After all, shipping valuable work is a real motivator and is often not covered in many engagement surveys. And “Honeymooners” are people who are engaged and happy but delivering little business value.
- Before passing the burden of wellbeing, it’s worth drawing a metaphorical circle around yourself as a leader and managers – and looking for problems there first.
- Look at the data clearly and follow it to understand what is really happening.
- And listen. Listen to everyone and form a plan.
Wellbeing is critically important in a business (and our lives) and sometimes a little resilience is what we need, but more often we need Leaders and Managers to do good, meaningful, valuable work with people who care.
When we combine a genuine care for people with a focus on removing systemic problem we can create a very positive place for people to help you remain relevant, employable and effective”