Why Do So Many Wellbeing Initiatives Come Unstuck?

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Blog Post - Initiatives Unstuck

And how to make sure yours doesn’t…

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

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