David Selves: The challenges for HR to prove the value of wellbeing initiatives to business?

The biggest challenge is human nature; the best of it and the worst of it. There are those short-sighted employers looking for the short-term quick buck rather than investing in creating a dynamic long-term productive workforce. There are also those employees who want to bleed as much as possible in the short-term from their employer. I suspect today the first category, perhaps once dominant, is now considerably smaller than the second category, but it is to that category that HR professionals have to sell their message. A happy workforce will be more productive; a safer workforce will be more productive. Looking at the global picture, I think society as a whole has become sloppy in the last five decades. The biggest challenge is to keep a workforce motivated when it actually has good conditions, where there is nothing to moan about.

In John Grisham’s book, The Painted House, a 10-year-old boy, who is the youngest of three generations, lives on a tenanted cotton farm in southern America. The whole family are enjoying a family meal, but the boy is troubled. The crop is good, the weather forecast is good, there is an abundance a cheap labour for picking the cotton, the sales market is strong and the adults for once appear to be unworried. The astute grandmother seeing that he is troubled says, “don’t worry. The adults will find something to worry about soon”. That is the biggest challenge, knowing when things are right and ensuring staff appreciate them as such.

How much do you feel that employment law has underpinned wellbeing in relation to safety at work?

I do tend to think of employment law in the narrow context and not in the broader context of health and safety. As is often the case with law, I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Does the demand, or perhaps I should say, the obvious need for general improvements in some working conditions, lead to needed law changes or are the lawmakers’ visionary and opening up greener pastures? My suspicion is it is something of a middle course.

There have always been and, whatever laws may exist, will always be good and bad employers. There is probably a general misconception from the 1920s that all private mine owners were bad employers. I remember, however, meeting a widow of over 60 years in the late 1980s who told a very different story. Her story was not a one off either, but sadly, there will always be a need for laws to protect employees against the minority of employers who are bad.

The phrase ‘common sense’ is totally misunderstood, grossly overused and rarely applied. Safety at work is essential and always has been. As such, basic legislation to create a safe, level playing field to ensure wellbeing in relation to safety at work is essential. The great danger that we now face is that health and safety has switched from being the tail wagging the dog, to the pack of hungry hunting hounds. It has long been accepted that to be truly effective, all laws have to command broad general support. I’m not talking about 51 per cent, or even 48 per cent or 52 per cent, as we have seen and continue to see! Until recently, and this has changed because of technology, many laws have in fact been largely self-enforcing. Speed limits, for example, are based on an acceptance of common sense by reasonable and responsible people. So it has to be with employment and health and safety law.

Are certain sectors promoting wellbeing more effectively than others?

Wellbeing means feeling healthy, happy and comfortable but it is difficult to encompass all sectors with a great sweep of a brush across the canvas.

I do believe that many things have changed in the last ten to twenty years, reshaping attitudes across the entire spectrum of life. The word ‘millennials’ has bounded into our society, but I don’t feel they have the same energy and appetite for life as a whole that my generation did. Maybe it is true that life has become more comfortable and, as a result, we have started to become soft. Maybe it is true that my generation has not had what is considered to be the best work/life balance.

Yet, one of the most significant and overdue changes over time has been approaching wellbeing at work with a more enlightened view. I now have no staff as such, just part-time ad hoc secretarial support, but I remember constantly saying to staff 30 years ago in the early to mid-afternoon that whilst I appreciated their commitment, if they hadn’t had lunch I wanted them to go for a walk around the park opposite. Yes, I was concerned for them, but I don’t hide the fact that I also knew that productivity levels, reliability and efficiency would fall if they didn’t take a break.

Currently we read there are proposals that people should not be expected to check their emails over the weekend when not at work. The University of Sussex has cast doubt on whether this is actually a healthy thing. You might question why I refer to this here given the subject of the question, but quite obviously a production worker at the Ford factory in Dagenham is not going to have work emails to check over the weekend and therefore the situation is different in different sectors. Personally, I side with the view that checking emails over the weekend can actually be a stress reliever. Whether I replied or waited until Monday, I’m controlling my life, and that goes for everyone.

Stress and mental health are two of key components to ensuing wellbeing amongst employees, should these be the first two areas that employers focus on when considering their wellbeing strategy?

One of the great social changes in recent years is society’s attitude to mental health, not just in the workplace but everywhere. I think the broader change has had a positive impact on the workplace, not just with employers but with fellow employees. There is some way to go, but to a large extent the stigma attached to suffering from poor mental health is evaporating. We must not look at this with blinkered eyes. Employers, especially in SMEs, are just as susceptible, possibly more so, to poor mental health issues as their employees. Yes, it is probably the biggest single issue of wellbeing, but as with health and safety, we must not fall into the trap of swinging from one wrong extreme to another. The ‘pull yourself together’, kick up the backside approach wasn’t the answer even at a time when it was ‘the norm’.

Dare I hope that society has reached a point where it can be objective? Where it can have a pragmatic, stigma-free, balanced approach without the need for excessive legislation. The biggest beneficiaries will be those needing the help.