Improving staff wellbeing – is it the answer to everything or just a fad?

by | Feb 13, 2019 | All posts, Biological Sciences, Wellbeing | 0 comments

On 29th January we held our Athena SWAN network wellbeing event which was well attended by academic, research and PS staff from our Faculty (89 staff members signed up and, even with the bad weather, most turned up).  We were delighted to be joined by Professor Sir Cary Cooper and Gemma Dale. Professor Sir Cary Cooper is patron of the Equality Challenge Unit and the Athena SWAN charter, global research expert in health and wellbeing at work and based at Alliance Business School here at the University of Manchester.  Gemma Dale is HR Policy and Engagement Officer who since starting last year, has been making big changes in work culture and how wellbeing is viewed across the University.

First up was the very cheery and engaging Cary. Here is what he told us (amongst amusing quotes from Joseph Heller’s second novel Something Happened):

Mental health is a critical, bottom line issue for all employers.  We now know that mental health absence, most often caused by stress, costs the UK economy £70bn per year – that’s 3.4% of our GDP.  The HSE recently reported that 44% of working days lost in Great Britain were due to stress, anxiety or depression (2017/18)1. This is the highest contributing factor to sickness absence, higher than chronic disease or musculoskeletal injuries (including back pain).

We know from personal experience that every job has its own unique stress footprint because of factors intrinsic to the job. Too much work, time pressures, deadlines and poor working conditions all contribute.  But it’s not just about too much work – too little work can be a stressor too. If I don’t have enough to do, is my job safe? Other factors include role ambiguity and conflict, organisational boundaries and personal responsibilities. Managerial support is critical; managers can enable you to thrive or they can be the cause of great stress.

On top of this, technology has forever changed the way we work.  Email per se isn’t the problem, but how we use it has a huge impact on well-being.  Workload, stress and concerns about job security encourage us not only to work long hours, longer on average in the UK than any other European country, but to check emails during the evening, at weekends, and even on holiday.  Technology allows work to invade our home lives, causing conflict with family.  Good common practice around how we use technology and simple rules that we can all work to are needed.

Employees put in face time and keep coming to work when they aren’t well. This is termed presenteeism; employees who are at work but are not well enough to add value to the workplace.  Presenteeism is on the rise2 and accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism3.

We need people to be both healthy and present at work.  This should be the aim of all employers, but isn’t the reality.  A Robertson Cooper survey of over 39,000 UK workers showed that only one third of workers are both healthy and present, and 24% of people go to work when they are not well4.

How do we deal with these challenging issues as an organisation, as managers and as employees?  Professor Cooper identified three key areas.  First and most obviously, we need to deal with the stressors – get to the bottom of what is causing the stress and address it. However, we can’t assume to know what these factors are as they are likely to vary across roles, responsibilities and across organisations.  Second, we need to help people cope with change and uncertainty. Third, we need the skills and resources to support staff through difficult times when they need it.

Professor Cooper left us with much to think about. It’s clear we need a more integrated approach to ‘diagnosing’ the specific problems of our organization and recognizing that this problem will not go away without a clear strategy and plan.

Next we heard from Gemma Dale about improving staff wellbeing here at the University.

Wellbeing and fads: what do we mean when we talk about wellbeing?  Is it work-life balance? Gemma is clearly not a fan of this very cut and dry term. How easy is a work-life balance in today’s technology driven world? How many of us check our emails outside of work because we feel we need to? How many take our work home because that works well for our life?  The 9 to 5 framework for working life was invented a long time ago. The world is changing, so we need to change the way we think about working life.

Taking control of your wellbeing: The term wellbeing means different things to different people, but we can all benefit from focused time on ourselves to take part in activities which can re-balance us and reduce stress. The University of Manchester is early in the journey to improving wellbeing for its staff, and has developed ‘six ways to wellbeing’ to promote healthy living and work practices and to help identify stressors and offer coping strategies. The wellbeing team also run a programme of wellbeing activities across campus and is trying to raise awareness through targeted lectures, better communications, and a dedicated wellbeing blog.

There are three main factors that come together to influence wellbeing for an individual at work – employee, manager, organisation.   We can all do more to take responsibility of our own and others wellbeing, identifying stressors and making changes as a manager and employee.  As a University we have a responsibility to develop a proactive and enabling culture, and to try to guide managers and staff in this process.

Resilience and managing change: As individuals we can’t stop change but we can influence how we manage it and thereby try to limit the effects. Uncertainty and a feeling of loss of control causes fight or flight responses, increasing physical and mental signs of stress. A number of fantastic new initiatives driven by Gemma are now helping staff to deal with this type of stress. Resilience training is now offered and has proved popular – the wellbeing lecture focused on resilience in 2018 was over-subscribed. Thrive programmes, 90 min reflections on wellbeing with a trained coach, and on-demand Thrive for Teams, enable individuals and working teams to change working practices and increase wellbeing.

Flexibility: Most importantly we need to promote policies that provide an environment which enables us to thrive inside and outside of work.  Flexibility for all is key. Flexible working is much broader than a family friendly policy; it’s about inclusion, attracting talent, helping commuters. Flexible working promotes wellbeing for all, not just those with caring responsibilities.  The University has a flexible working policy, and Gemma has big plans for improving and making this more accessible to all staff – so watch this space!

Engagement: One way to foster better understanding and acceptance of wellbeing practices is by word of mouth.  Wellbeing champions were first introduced last year to promote University wellbeing initiatives.  So far there has been a good uptake, but there are currently only two academic champions across the entire University. This demonstrates the ongoing challenge to engage all staff in supporting and promoting wellbeing.

Take home message: There are three parts to successful wellbeing at work – employee, manager, organisation. As an employee: we can all do more to take ownership of wellbeing. As managers: we need to recognise that one size does not fit all. Different people have different needs. As an organisation: the University is providing training to support staff and equip them to manage change, to encourage staff to excel, and to influence working practices to improve wellbeing. All employers have an obligation to ensure that wellbeing for all is a major ‘people objective.’

For those of you that want to explore more of what the University offers to support your wellbeing at work you might want to visit the wellbeing pages on StaffNet, where you will find the blog, videos, activity calendar and details about our forthcoming workshops.  For those of you that lead teams, you can also find a range of resources on Managers Essentials including this talk on how to help your people thrive at work.

The audience were impressed with Gemma’s fresh take on how we can start to make a cultural change and improve staff wellbeing. We look forward to seeing more of the changes she has up her sleeve!

Both talks were followed by a lively panel discussion.  The session was chaired by SBS Athena SWAN co-chair Jo Pennock. Members of the panel included Heads of Operations Alison Howorth (SBS), Andrea Palmer-Baker (SMS), Gabrielle Brennan (SHS) and HR partner Stephen Johnston (SBS), alongside Gemma Dale.  Discussion focused on barriers to wellbeing here at the University and raised some very interesting points from the panel and the audience, regarding email practices and long-working hours. Is this culture self-inflicted? Why do we do it? Why do we need to check in on work when we are at home? Is it a stressful response to a short deadline, or is it from the need to work flexibly outside of office hours? Should we push back on others’ expectations to work long hours? Everyone agreed that university life can mean long hours and deadlines, with pressures varying depending upon career stage, role and life factors. Suggestions came from various members of the panel and audience and included: setting personal limits, and communicating clearly to others our own limits and expectations.  Being aware of potential pressure you might be placing on others in your working practices came through strongly in this discussion.  One suggestion was to only send emails in working hours, drafting them out of hours when absolutely necessary.   It was clear that no one solution fits all, and that every role has its own demands and responsibilities that impact the way we work.

The event provoked considerable food for thought, with actionable strategies that we can each take forward to manage individual wellbeing. To quote Professor Cooper:

‘John Ruskin, the British social reformer, wrote in 1851 “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed; they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it.”  That is the challenge for the organisation and the individual, as we both strive to create a healthy and productive workplace.’


1: HSE statistics 2017/18: Work-related ill health and occupational disease in Great Britain.

3:  The Sainsbury Mental Health Centre Policy Paper 8 (2007). Mental Health at work: Developing the Business Case.

3: People Management article 2018: Warnings about ‘culture of presenteeism’ as sickness absence reaches record low.


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