Well-being in companies: between reality and illusions

Well-being in Companies: Between Reality and Illusions

There are more and more actions aimed at improving the well-being of employees. However, we still see too many initiatives which seem to be inconsistent or more of a justification than a real HR strategy. So, if you want to engage in a sincere and realistic approach to sustainably improve the well-being of your employees, here are, for us, the key elements to take into account and the mistakes to avoid.

From a one-time patch to a real HR strategy

Investing in the well-being of employees is obviously important in itself, but it has also been demonstrated to improve employee engagement and overall business results, regardless of the size of the company and its fields of activity1Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes (Q12 Meta-Analysis) – Gallup, 2020..

To succeed in such a project, the first essential factor is time. There is no one-time action that can have a lasting and real impact on well-being. It is necessarily a long-term commitment, and therefore an HR strategy that is part of the management of the company and its internal culture.

What are the possible strategies?

Hedonism vs. Eudemonia

If we want to develop well-being in companies, there are only two possible strategies for action:

  • Initiatives based on a hedonistic approach, which are all actions that have an impact on the employees’ environment such as the working space, the services provided, extra-professional activities, etc.
  • Initiatives based on a Eudemonic approach, which are actions that allow each employee to strengthen personal qualities and abilities that have a direct impact on their physical and mental well-being, such as emotional management, interpersonal relationships and resilience.

We observe that a majority of the initiatives put in place by companies still fall under the first approach. However, a hedonistic approach cannot constitute the main strategy because it has two major limitations:

  • Satisfaction remains a subjective perception despite our commonality on some of life’s pleasures, which minimises the impact of this type of action on a diverse set of employees.
  • Hedonic adaptation: the human tendency to adapt quickly to changes (positive or negative) in order to return to the previous personal average level of well-being, which is the biggest pitfall of this approach.

This is why, beyond a certain threshold of comfort and advantages offered by the company, the initiatives which tend to increase pleasure have only a minor impact on the well-being of employees.

There are six areas of skills that have a direct and lasting impact on the level of individual and collective well-being in a company.

Human skills development as a strategy

Today, numerous scientific studies (in psychology, sociology, neuroscience and even genetics) indicate that physical and mental well-being can be developed by strengthening a set of inner qualities and capacities that we refer to as “human skills”2Psychological Well-Being Revisited: Advances in the Science and Practice of Eudaimonia – Psychother Psychosom, vol. 83, 2014. + A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Well-Being – PNAS, vol. 110, 2013. + The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions – American Psychologists, vol. 56, 2001..

What are these human skills?

There are six areas of skills that have a direct and lasting impact on the level of individual and collective well-being in a company:

  1. Focused attention & Awareness
  2. Emotions
  3. Subjective well-being
  4. Prosocial relationships
  5. Resilience
  6. Purpose & Engagement

It is important to note that all the skills from these areas are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. This is why it is wise and important to develop them together.

For more details on each of these areas, see this page.

The appropriate pedagogical method

Defining an HR strategy to cultivate genuine well-being goes beyond providing traditional technical skills since it involves the development of mental and behavioural capacities, which is a relatively recent perspective in companies. Such a strategy is all the more difficult to define as the appropriate pedagogical method is often unknown, and the offers are disparate and difficult to evaluate in the face of flattering promises.

A short mental training can improve attention, cognitive functions, and mood as well as reducing fatigue and anxiety.

How to develop employees’ mental and behavioural capacities?

As this is a matter of human psychology, appropriate techniques are needed. Neuroscience tells us that the way we think and behave is linked to neural patterns created by experience and that these can evolve with training. To be effective, this training must create a new mental familiarity3Thanks to neuroplasticity, mental familiarity is a process by which new neural connections are voluntarily activated to create new mental or behavioural habits. obtained through the acquisition of knowledge, analysis, but also through specific mental practices that have proven to be effective: studies show that even short mental training can improve attention, cognitive functions, and mood as well as reducing fatigue and anxiety4Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training – Consciousness and Cognition, vol. 19, 2010. + Short-Term Meditation Training Improves Attention and Self-Regulation – PNAS, vol. 104, 2007..

Thus, helping employees to be happier, in a supportive environment, means giving them the knowledge and tools to better understand and manage their mental activity. This is precisely where one of the chronic causes of stress, anxiety, unhappiness and disengagement that companies are facing lies: the significant gaps that we have in knowing and mastering our minds as well as the cultural and psychological biases that contradict the real causes of individual and collective well-being5Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing – American Psychologist, vol. 60, 2005. + Affective Forecasting – Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 35, 2003. + Decisions and Revisions: The Affective Forecasting of Changeable Outcomes – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 82, 2002..

A mental training that strengthens human skills is the best HR strategy today to truly and sustainably improve the well-being of employees.

The importance of a coherent corporate culture and management

Undertaking mental training that strengthens the six areas of human skills presented above is therefore the best HR strategy today to truly and sustainably improve the well-being of employees.

For this evolution to take place, it is crucial that there is no contradiction between the development of well-being, the company’s culture and the attitude of senior executives. This is why it is an HR strategy that is global and includes the definition of the values and behaviours encouraged by the company.

Companies are able to reinvent themselves by implementing HR strategies that take into account both their own constraints and those induced by the development of well-being.

Innovation and ongoing training

Changing certain mental attitudes and behaviours is a gradual process which, in order to give real results, needs be part of a long-term vision supported by an ongoing training programme.

Today, there are many options for social innovation in companies and all the necessary elements are present: contents, tools and pedagogical models. There is therefore an excellent opportunity for companies to reinvent themselves by implementing HR strategies that take into account both their own constraints and those induced by the development of well-being.

It is important to assess their impact, but human psychology cannot be evaluated like financial data.

The right assessment

More and more training programs claim the power to reduce stress by X% or increase well-being by Y%. However, these numbers don’t make much sense: on the one hand, they are based on declarative evaluations, which means subjective, and on the other hand, they do not correspond to any lasting reality since the same question asked to the same individuals a few days later will give different results.

Similarly, we observe the development of digital tools for evaluating and monitoring the well-being of teams, which make it possible to assess it down to the comma on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. We consider that these tools have two major drawbacks:

  • They are in contradiction with the development of employees’ well-being by exempting managers from an essential aspect of their role: the human connection. Human relations are a key element of well-being and even more so when it comes to knowing how each member of a team is doing.
  • Well-being as a new pernicious and tyrannical indicator. Developing well-being in the workplace doesn’t mean inducing the illusion that there will be no more problems to face or stress to manage. The experience of professional life is not linear and there will always be easy as well as challenging moments.

Of course, as for all strategic management actions, it is important to assess their impact, but human psychology cannot be evaluated like financial data.

The well-being paradox: an effect rather than a goal

There is a paradox in the development of well-being: we cannot just decide to be happy as to achieve well-being we must create the conditions necessary for its manifestation. Many studies indicate that these conditions are related to the six areas of human skills described above, such as attention, emotional balance, resilience, etc. Therefore, the most meaningful indicators are those that follow the evolution of these skills over time.

It is important to add an annual assessment of the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the programmes and strategy adopted, together with conventional HR criteria such as absenteeism and turnover, customer satisfaction and some quality criteria in the case of ISO certification. It is also possible to monitor the evolution of the company’s results but it is necessary to identify and evaluate the impact of other influencing factors.

The empty shell syndrome

With a booming corporate wellness market, opportunistic attitudes abound and renowned brands are no exception.

On the corporate side, we observe a certain “wellness-washing” with websites claiming ambitious “People Strategies” that unfortunately do not correspond to any internal reality, as well as limited and incoherent actions that seem to be carried out to give the illusion of being concerned by the subject.

Similarly, on the training side, we observe that some providers, including international leaders, offer programmes on well-being and its corollaries such as emotional intelligence or mindfulness with improvised trainers who, in fact, disappoint and create mistrust in these tools.

The qualities and skills essential for success

Anyone involved in the design and implementation of a strategy to change mental and behavioural attitudes in companies needs to have certain qualities and skills to be able to bring about real change: to be driven by human values and to have significant experience of mental training practices.

Indeed, one cannot be credible and contribute to improving well-being without understanding the fundamental importance of human values, and without wanting to develop and reflect them in one’s daily behaviour.

The mere intellectual knowledge of a psychological phenomenon is not enough to change our own mental habits.

Moreover, theoretical knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is not sufficient to change mental attitudes and behaviours. If mere intellectual knowledge of a psychological phenomenon were enough to change our own mental habits, the global state of the workplace would probably not be what it is today6State of the Global Workplace 2021 – Gallup, 2021..

Knowledge is obviously necessary and we have never had access to so many fascinating and important scientific studies, but it is not enough: personal experience in this field is the only way to make knowledge profitable. That is why hired people need a serious personal experience of introspection and mental training to be able to inspire and help others to change their own mental and behavioural habits.

Developing mental and behavioural attitudes in companies is still a disruptive innovation that requires humane, lucid and courageous leaders.

The opportunity of a rich human adventure

We believe that the company should be an ecosystem that defends and promotes human values and that its culture is the best tool to achieve this. Developing the well-being of employees is part of this mission, which is not utopian since it is not about making professional life perfect, but certainly better.

Today, all the elements necessary for the implementation and success of such a strategy exist. But in a context where developing mental and behavioural attitudes in companies is still a disruptive innovation, it requires humane, lucid and courageous leaders.

We wish you all a very happy new year 2022!

Laurent van Steenkiste & Valentina Dolara

Illustration de Perepadia Y

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