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Why trust is more important than wellbeing 

Zoe Humphries
experience

Workplace wellbeing programmes have become hugely popular amongst enlightened employers, who see them as a solution to combatting absenteeism and stress, while simultaneously boosting productivity and engagement. Contributor Zoe Humphries, Senior Workplace Consultant – Steelcase.

Consisting of activities ranging from health screenings and exercise classes, to mindfulness advice and educational sessions, these programmes promise to improve both the physical and mental health of employees. And they’re big business, with recent research showing that nearly half (45%) of UK organisations have a defined wellbeing strategy in place, and numerous studies claiming to prove the benefits of wellbeing initiatives. 

Yet despite their popularity, new research suggests that wellbeing programmes might not be the panacea that it is often claimed, due to the self-selecting nature of those who take part. The Illanois Workplace Wellness Study – which used randomised rather than observational trials – found that employees whose companies offered wellness programmes were in fact no more likely to participate in physical activity or have lower healthcare costs, than those who didn’t.  

So, while wellbeing programmes may seem like a solution to mental and physical health issues in the workplace, there are strong indications that employers should be looking at the issue through a broader, more holistic lens. Understanding and maximising wellbeing in the workplace is a topic that Steelcase has spent a great deal of time researching, and we have identified six key dimensions to wellness:  

– Optimism: Fostering creativity and innovation

– Mindfulness: Fully engaged

– Authenticity: Really yourself

– Belonging: Connecting to others

– Meaning: A Sense of purpose

– Vitality: Get-up-and-go

Each of these elements has a vital role to play in the physical and mental wellbeing of employees, yet you would be unlikely to find them on traditional wellbeing programmes. 

And what our researchers have also realised is that at the core of all six elements is trust; trust and belief in the purpose and goals of the organisation. Trust that employees can express themselves, their values, ideas and emotions, without fear of reprisal. And trust in their interactions with colleagues and leadership. 

Optimism, creativity and innovation – all vital to business today – are only possible with trust. Employees must be able to experiment freely and have an inherent understanding that to fail does not mean failure, if everybody can learn from it. Only in a trusting workplace environment can employees feel empowered to take the calculated risks that are needed to innovate and move forward. Without this, there is only fear, paranoia and an unfulfilled workforce.  

Personal expressiveness is also key; the freedom to be who you are, at work as well as away from work. Linked to this is building authentic relationships, and Gallup poll data from more than a decade of surveying people has revealed that, in fact, the most important factor in wellbeing on the job is to have a best friend at work. Relationships anchor people’s commitment to the larger organisation. Having close friends and positive interactions can’t happen without trust, which is also inextricably linked to authenticity.

Yet developing trust in the radically interconnected and rapidly evolving global economy requires going back to basics. Nothing beats the power of face-to-face interactions for building trust, and in a working world that is becoming faster, more disparate and more digitalised all the time, getting that face time isn’t always easy. 

So, what can employers do to create a more trusting – and therefore all-round healthier – organisation? Choice and control over the workspace: Trusting and empowering people to work where, when and how they want is an essential first step to building greater trust in the workplace. Employees should be supported in how they do their best work, including working flexibly and being able to customise and personalise their workspace as they choose.

Design for transparency: Encourage a flat, organic structure that makes it easy to share information, ideas and feelings between people at the same level, and that allows for free-flowing communication between managers and subordinates, such that the latter feel heard and empowered. Ensure everybody in the organization is visible and accessible through workplace design, culture and open, honest communication. 

Encourage connections: Help employees to meet face to face and eye to eye, in order to build trust and relationships with their colleagues. Provide spaces where individuals can talk and connect in person rather than via digital devices. Design the workplace to maximise movement, interactions and collaboration. 

A range of spaces: People need to be comfortable to express their true selves, and work in an environment that suits their mood at any given time. Employers can support this by providing spaces for different needs, including quiet, individual time, as well as communal spaces for socialising and idea generation. Incorporating spaces with a home-like feel helps people to feel comfortable. 

Reinforce the brand and purpose: A feeling of purpose can be aided by constantly reinforcing the brand and culture, so that all employees feel a sense of meaning and are united behind a common mission. This can be done both in virtual and physical ways, for example with signage that reminds staff of the brand, purpose, history and culture of the company, as well as regular positive messages from leadership.

Clearly, engaging the body in movement is also essential for supporting physical and mental vigour at work, which is why all these factors should naturally be supported with physical wellbeing policies and initiatives. 

Ensure employees are kept active and healthy with easily adjustable furniture to fit a range of sizes, needs and preferences. Encourage cycling with bike racks and develop outdoor walking paths if possible. It can also be hugely beneficial to bring the nature in through plants, daylight and views. Introducing healthy choices in the work café is also a no-brainer. 

But to look at wellbeing purely as exercise, healthy eating and so on, is to miss the point. Poor physical health is usually a symptom of something that goes much deeper, and true wellbeing starts from within. Employers must therefore look deep inside themselves if they want to feel all the benefits of a healthy workforce. Superficial wellbeing initiatives won’t bring lasting change. Only by building a sense of trust, authenticity and purpose to everything they do, can organisations maintain their healthy glow – and ensure it sticks around for the long-term.

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