When it comes to making decisions, Captain Logic does like to think he’s in charge. His role’s important, but he’s not as all-powerful as he might like to think…. I'm not much of a gambler, but I did find this fascinating....
Participants in a game called the Iowa gambling task were each given 4 decks of cards, and $2,000. Each card turn tells a player whether they’ve won or lost money. What they didn't know was that two of the decks were stacked with both high risk and high reward cards, and the other two with smaller rewards, and very occasional losses. Drawing only from these two decks would eventually bring the gambler out ahead with stable profits.
At first, players drew randomly from all 4 decks, sampling from each pile as they searched for the most lucrative cards. Within about 50 cards, they began to draw only from the more profitable decks, but it took until around the 80th card for them to become aware of it. Showing beautifully how our outside-awareness thinking can shape our behaviour without us noticing.
However, as the experimenters’ aim was to track the emotion of decisions, they also wired up participants for readings of the skin’s electrical conductance, which increases with heightened anxiety. By around the tenth card, players were showing increased anxiety as they reached towards the riskier piles, even though consciously, they had no awareness at all of the difference between decks.
Fascinating in itself, but they then repeated the study with a group of participants who’d been subjected to mild sleep deprivation. The result? No unconscious learning. They continued to draw randomly from the 4 card decks throughout.
OK, so they lost a little more money. What’s that got to do with business? How many roles in your organisation rely a degree of intuition or unconscious learning to do them really well? And yet all it takes is a few hours lost sleep to hammer that innate capacity.
If you want to explore the full importance of sleep, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time is Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”. Or you can check out his TED talk here https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_walker_sleep_is_your_superpower (thought if you’re watching in work, beware the opening being overheard!)
How much do you think the working days lost to stress, anxiety and depression have increased across the UK in the last year? It’s 23% *. Shocking, isn’t it? It seems that despite record levels of investment in mental wellbeing, the figures are still going in the wrong direction. So are we investing wisely?
Mental Wellbeing activities fall broadly into four categories:
Support and Recovery – How we respond to presenting mental ill-health. For example
Training line managers in recognising and dealing effectively with mental ill-health issues
Training Mental Health First Aiders to provide effective signposting towards appropriate professional support
Provision of professional support such as access to counselling
Making appropriate changes to facilitate recovery e.g. temporary changes to the individual’s work responsibilities, location or hours
Prevention - This is targeted, proactive activity such as resilience skills training to reduce the risks of mental ill-health, or gym access to encourage regular exercise (to support both physical and mental wellbeing).
Building awareness. Generally more passive activities, which may lead individuals to take later action, if they choose. For example, provision of leaflets or a lunch and learn session about effectively managing your finances, signposting individuals to advice if they need it. These activities are best provided little and often to maintain the wellbeing programme’s momentum and engagement, and to help embed wellbeing within the heart of the organisation’s culture.
Engagement and fun. These build awareness through activity, generally focusing on topics like healthy eating or regular exercise. They’re popular for building buzz and engagement, encouraging people to get involved, and helping the key messages to stick. They may also include elements of competition, such as quizzes, team step challenges or timed gym exercises.
If you’re involved in delivering wellbeing, are you selecting activities to cover all four categories?
In my recent research into different organisations’ wellbeing provision, I’ve been really surprised to discover how few are investing in prevention, focusing more on awareness and signposting. It’s much better than doing nothing, but it doesn’t address the huge underlying issue. It’s the equivalent of sending in our people to do heavy lifting with no manual handling training, but making sure we provide excellent physio support for the resulting injuries.
Our ability to withstand stress is a set of skills. It’s something which all possess to varying degrees, and it’s something which we can all learn to improve – just as we can learn how to lift heavy items more safely. Because for all of us, unfortunately our emotional lives within work and beyond sometime involve heavy lifting. So the more we’ve developed those skills, the more we’re able to take whatever life demands of us more smoothly in our stride.
For support and advice on making your wellbeing programme work get in touch
(*) Data published by the HSE: 2016-17 absence due to SAD = 12.5 million days. 2017-18 thus increased to 15.4 million days
You’ve got commitment from your Leadership Team, and you’ve outlined your plans. Maybe you’ve gone public with your programme launch or signing the Time to Change Pledge. It feels like everything’s lined up behind this - then it starts to wobble.
Perhaps it’s patchy engagement – it gets loads of attention during awareness events, then fizzles in between. Maybe you struggle to get budget because when finances are tight, the ‘nice to haves’ are the first thing to go. Maybe activities get cancelled or only a handful of people turn up because day-to-day operations have to take priority. You’re not alone…
Successfully delivering change isn’t easy, especially in something as complex and ambiguous as wellbeing. As leaders, there’s always more we could do if only we had the resource - it’s frustrating, putting something important on hold because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. In almost half of organisations, operational demands tend to take priority over wellbeing (1) and 12% of managers say they face situations on a daily basis where they have to put the organisation’s needs ahead of their people’s (2) - it’s a common dilemma. But when your people are at their best, they’re brilliant.
A successful wellbeing programme supports the best of both worlds, improving performance without driving your people harder, and wellbeing without adversely impacting day-to-day operations. So why do so many programmes come unstuck? I’ve spent most of my career leading continuous improvement and employee engagement programmes, so I’ve experienced many of the pitfalls, and I’ve seen so many organisations’ programmes suffer the same kinds of fate. Here’s my take on the most common reasons, and how best to avoid them.
Inconsistent Commitment from the Top
Thankfully these days, leaders who don’t value wellbeing are rare. We all understand the importance of our people to the organisation’s performance and its customers’ experience. But that logical understanding doesn’t always translate into day-to-day behaviours.
Your leaders should set a consistent example. If they’re regularly seen working long hours, or wearing excess stress as a badge of honour, they’re giving out very mixed messages when it comes to championing Wellbeing. Standards need to be seen to be upheld… I’ve known numerous bosses who’ll happily call their team out of hours, or expect late-night emails to be answered before morning. These behaviours can destroy a developing Wellbeing culture. A phrase which I’ve found really effective in changing these unhelpful behaviours is
“The lowest standard you’re willing to accept, is the highest you can ever expect”.
In other words, if you only walk-the-walk when it suits you, don’t expect anyone else to walk it at all. Consistency is key, no matter how energetically you try to explain away the inconsistencies…The minute you accept a sticking-plaster solution, you’re giving the green light to everyone to cut corners, or do nothing at all.
Not Linking Activities to Outcomes
Talking of cutting corners, here’s another common one: When I train and mentor new change leaders, many of them struggle with the temptation to jump straight to solutions - to get it ‘fixed’ and move on to the next big thing. It’s often what organisations expect – off-the-shelf quick wins and ticked boxes are celebrated. But the risks are high, of treating only the surface symptoms, of delivering a ‘solution’ which the organisation’s unable to maintain, or of worsening the issue by actioning the wrong thing and damaging trust.
During my recent research, I’ve noticed a startlingly familiar pattern in the number of organisations launching activities like Mental Health First Aid training or high-profile awareness weeks, without aligning them to an over all strategy or agreed wellbeing outcomes. It’s better than doing nothing at all, but with a little extra rigour, the gains can be some much greater. Because you can only determine the most appropriate action to take once you’re absolutely clear about what you’re trying to achieve.
Done well, wellbeing is cultural – an integral part of the organisation’s values and practices, inextricably linked with both employee engagement and continuous improvement. And that needs solid foundations. Over the years, I’ve seen so many change programmes encounter multiple false starts, generate patchy engagement, fall foul of shifting priorities to never quite deliver, or become much harder work than anyone anticipated. All because of missed steps early on – and here’s one of the commonest
Not Establishing a Collective ‘WHY’
‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ is too ambiguous, and too easy to keep shelving for other, more pressing priorities. Specifically, what does your organisation want to avoid and gain from improving wellbeing? Exploring this thoroughly helps to build desire and momentum towards those outcomes, and referring back to it regularly during the programme helps to maintain alignment between what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, avoiding the lure of those sticking-plaster ‘solutions’. It can also be re-visited and re-energised if the programme starts to wobble part way through. When I see organisations adopting a scatter-gun or tickbox approach, investing lots of effort for little return, it’s usually because they’ve not invested the time to really understand the Why…
What’s in it for each of your stakeholder groups? For example, your Recruitment Manager might want to improve the organisation’s ability to attract the very best candidates, by demonstrating how you care for, support and develop your staff. Operations managers might want to avoid the disruptive effects (and financial cost) of people going off sick. Team leaders might be fed up of having to correct the mistakes people make because they’re distracted by worries they’ve got going on at home, so they want ways to stop those worries’ disruptive effects on their team. Your HR team might want to stop the disputes which get escalated to them because people let conflict build up when they’re feeling overloaded.
As well as building initial momentum, this nurtures the shared understanding of just how important wellbeing is – because it affects far more than the way people feel or the cost of sickness absences: When we’re stressed we’re more likely to make mistakes, which take time and energy to put right. We tend to be more resistant to change, requiring much more management effort to introduce new systems or ways of working and reducing the organisation's flexibility. The fight-flight reactions of stress and anxiety switch off our curiosity and creativity, so opportunities and improvements get missed. We may be less willing to take on new responsibilities, or invest time and effort in supporting our colleagues’ development. And disagreements are more likely to start and escalate, damaging working relationships.
The more thoroughly everyone understands these ripple effects, the more they’re likely to value your Wellbeing programme and support its activities.
Not Measuring Outcomes
No change programme gets it all absolutely right, first time. We need feedback to establish what’s working to celebrate and build on, and what’s not and needs tweaking. Think of the way an aeroplane maintains its course over the duration of a long-haul flight: The pilot doesn’t just type in the destination and set off – the combined effects of wind and turbulence are constantly shifting the aircraft’s course, so the flight team monitor to detect and correct for these shifts. By exploring ‘why’ and setting those clear objectives, you’ve plotted your course. But there are numerous outside forces which can affect your programme deployment, and if you’re not monitoring results, you’ll have no idea whether your actions are having the desired effect.
During recent conversations with numerous organisations, I’ve found it extremely concerning that so many are investing their precious resources in a particular course of action without prior research into its effectiveness, or measuring its contribution towards the over all ‘Why’. For instance, investing in EAP or Counselling support without any measure of how many people are accessing it (and by inference, how many aren’t). Or investing in Mental Health First Aid training, without tracking the number or quality of MHFA conversations happening across the organisation, or the outcomes they’ve supported. Which leaves us at very great risk of putting in huge amounts of effort, and still failing to deliver against those desired outcomes.
I hope that what I’ve described has resonated with you, either reassuring you that you’ve got your important bases covered, or drawing your attention to potential gaps to action. Because Wellbeing really does matter…..
To explore equipping your wellbeing programme for success, you're welcome to Get in Touch
(1) National CIPD Absence Management Survey
(2) Oct-18 Mental Health at Work Report, published by Business in the Community
I love a good process, and I’ve spent a good chunk of my career developing them for various organisations. So it’s not surprising that I keep a problem-solving process mindset towards helping people to overcome disruptive stress. When it comes to resolving a stress, which do you think would have the biggest impact – thinking about how the stressful situation came about, or thinking about what’ll be like to have it resolved?
If you’ve got something stressing you out which is potentially solve-able in the future (and which doesn’t put you into full fight-flight to think about), you might like to try this technique which was developed with a group of UCLA students.
Take a few quiet moments – grab a brew if you like – to visualise how this problem situation came about. Remember the details of what happened as it first began. It might not be pleasant, but it’s not for long. Then take it step by step, visualising what happened, what was said, remembering how you felt. Take your time, seeing it as if you were watching a movie of it. If some details are a little hazy, it doesn’t have to be precisely accurate. And if the way you picture it in your mind’s eye isn’t movie-quality, that’s fine too. Allow yourself to experience curiosity about how you might resolve that stress. Spend five minutes each day for the next 5 days, repeating the reconstruction.
A second group of students was asked to do something similar, but visualising the outcome they’d like instead – what they’d see and hear, and how they’d feel as they emerged from the problem situation, putting it behind them.
Which did you think would be most effective? The first group fared much better when it came to actually resolving the situation, taking more advice and action, experiencing more of a mood boost, and reporting more learning from the stressful experience. Focusing on what you want may be more pleasant, but it gives your creative thinking no guidance on how to get there. Thinking about the stressful situation itself is more likely to lead to solutions.
Stress is complicated – it’s really an umbrella term for lots of different emotions, which all have something in common. Whether you’re feeling worried, anxious, depressed, frustrated or upset, every stress is some kind of gap between how you’d like things, and how they are.
The more gaps someone’s experiencing, or the bigger individual gaps are, the more likely that stress will outstrip their resources for dealing with it, becoming a problem. But not all stress is bad - our national survey revealed that 34% of people enjoy the stress of their role. Useful stresses are the ones which make life interesting – the challenges we rise to. We often experience them as energising rather than draining, and sometimes even the ones we wouldn’t have chosen to experience can bring out our very best.
We experience stress as a result of adverse events, which cause psychological and physical distress. However, a recent study sought to explore whether the reverse could also be true. Could attempts to avoid distress actually lead to more stress?
The study was carried out with 1,211 late middle-aged individuals, who answered 3 questionnaires over a 10 year period; assessing how much they avoided thinking realistically about a problem, or reduced tension by expressing negative feelings rather than dealing with the problem. They were also questioned about the stresses of their life, like being fired, getting divorced, having too little money for the basics, conflicts with co-workers - 157 different ones!
The study found two strong correlations: The more avoidance strategies people used, the greater the significant stresses they experienced AND the more depressive symptoms they showed at the 10 year assessment.
Now, I teach statistics, so I’m always cautious with data. A relationship between two things doesn’t always mean that one is causing the other. So it got me thinking more about what these findings could actually mean…
Avoiding the discomfort of conflict may make the situation escalate into something more serious, like getting divorced, or getting fired. Avoiding the discomfort of stepping up to a challenge might mean missing out on a promotion, and the extra money it brings. It makes sense that avoidance might be causing extra stresses.
How readily does your organisation (and its individuals) embrace stress? Early warning signs of avoidance might be how often people complain about challenges they’re facing, without taking any action; or how many people an issue gets passed between before someone takes ownership.
I’ve supported lots of organisations through culture change, and at the beginning it’s common for most of the energy to go into listing out what’s wrong, before some of that energy starts to get invested into action. It’s understandable when people are already busy, and it can really slow down a developing culture of Wellbeing.
Left to its own devices, that inertia can take months (or even years) to turn round – for the mindsets and behaviours to really change. In the noise of the day-to-day priorities, it’s easy for Wellbeing to be a nice-to-have, even when it’s got full commitment from the Leadership team. But it is possible to get the best of both - to improve performance (productivity, quality customer service….) without driving your people harder, and wellbeing without impacting day-to-day operations…
Our Well-formance diagnostic is designed to help shape your strategy for improving both. It explores the six key overlaps between Wellbeing and your Organisation’s performance (including problem-solving, resistance to change and important relationships), highlighting what’s already working to build on, and making comprehensive suggestions for further improvement. To find out more Get in Touch