How to look after the wellbeing of your workforce

Research shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and they are valued and supported, they tend to have higher wellbeing levels, be more committed to their organisation’s goals, and perform better too.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wellbeing is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” In this article, we are assuming a broader definition, such as the one drafted by the New Economics Foundation: “how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole.”

There is clear evidence that shows a link between stress and cardio-vascular disease. Meanwhile, a poor diet full of sugar and fat suppresses your immune system. It’s also known that exercise promotes physical health and helps you get a good night’s sleep, which is a key factor in personal wellbeing. Organisations should aim to support both physical and mental wellbeing (traditionally the focus has been more on physical health, but visibility of the effect poor mental health is now increasing and starting to gain much-needed attention – see more on this at the end of this article).

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of the water.”
Benjamin Franklin

Stress – what causes it and what can you do to minimise it?

We’re all familiar with the fight-or-flight response that prepares us to meet a challenge or run away from it. A stressful event – whether an external situation like the sudden appearance of a snake on your path or an internal event like fear of losing your job – triggers the release of a rush of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. They surge through the body, speeding your heartbeat and the circulation of blood, mobilising fat and sugar for fast energy, focusing attention, preparing muscles for action, and more. It generally takes some time for the body to calm down after the stress response has been triggered.

Whilst this stress response could save our life, it is designed for immediate, short-term dangerous situations, not extended challenges like issues at work or traffic. Feeling this stress response over time affects our physical and mental wellbeing.

Typical situations at work that cause us stress are:

  • Long working hours
  • Threat of job loss
  • No decision-making authority (especially if coupled with responsibility)
  • Micro-management (or abdication) by your line manager
  • Lack of training to do the job
  • Bureaucracy and internal politices
  • Lack of respect for us as an individual
  • Blame culture, or one that’s overly focused on performance at the expense of learning

Personality plays a part. For example, perfectionists are more at risk, as are people who are too independent and don’t like to ask for help.

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
Albert Einstein

People are less likely to suffer from stress when all three of these conditions are present:

  1. Feeling of control over our job
  2. Sufficient resources to be able to do our job properly
  3. The right level of support

As a leader, if you do nothing else except ensure these three conditions are present, you’ll go a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff!

Top tips for your organisation

Prevention is better than cure, so create an organisational culture that values everyone, and  provide a range of resources that support physical and mental wellbeing.

It’s also important to keep up to date with what other companies do in this area, to make the most of others’ ideas and keep your own services evolving. As a baseline, here are four ways your organisation can enable wellbeing for your staff:

1. Have a wellbeing strategy that’s focused on the belief that prevention is better than cure

When thinking about wellbeing, a lot of companies immediately think about physical things, such as a fitness room at work, lunchtime yoga classes, vacation time, or a nice restaurant with healthy food options. These are all important, but only within a bigger strategy and culture that assumes prevention is better than cure.

What’s your wellbeing strategy, and what principles underpin it?

Laughter and playfulness can be the best medicine, and that means you need a culture that allows this. The right culture is one where people can speak up and support each other through difficulties, and where they are not expected to achieve the impossible. A culture where long working hours are not the norm, but the exception.

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible.”
Audrey Hepburn

2. Have systems and training in place

Monitor metrics across the organisation including: absenteeism, staff turnover, working hours, grievances raised, accident rates, and opinion surveys that measure employee engagement.

It’s really important that you train your line managers to spot when an individual is stressed. Specifically, I suggest training in listening skills, empathy, appreciation for diversity, and being non-judgemental. Managers need to recognise that their role is to support their employees, to be aware of what resources are available, and to make sure employees use them. It’s equally important to know where they, as line managers, can get support.

Some will naturally be more comfortable with this than others, but every leader needs a baseline level of skill in this area.

3. Provide wellbeing services

We all know that exercise is a key factor in reducing stress and depression and increasing resilience, so it’s great to provide some or all the ideas listed in point 1. But you should also provide counselling services and design your office layout to include quiet and relaxed spaces to counteract the buzzy places that have plenty of people around.

Ensure all these services are well published and talked about, so people know it’s OK to use them. Track and publicise their rates of use, where possible.

4. Promote wellbeing

Publish your wellbeing strategy and policy. Invite external speakers to talk about how to manage stress and boost resilience, or to teach mindfulness.

For example, you might have a wellbeing at work week with a series of events to maintain a high profile. Measure what people find most helpful and evolve your strategy from there.

Appoint wellbeing champions who are responsible for spreading the message at a local level, so people can connect to it. Internal champions are often the most effective resource you will have, because employees tend to pay most attention to what’s close to them day to day.

What this means to you – as a leader and as an individual

Trust that if you take care of your people, they’ll take care of the work.

“Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”
Stephen R. Covey

While this article focuses on what your organisation can do, it’s about balancing your responsibilities to the organisation, to your employees, and your own wellbeing.


You don’t want to overdo it or become the ‘parent’ of your employees. Show you care as a person, and support them to access the resources the company provides so they can help themselves. Ensure their self-esteem remains strong, as this will reduce their stress further.

It’s also incumbent on you to take personal responsibility for your own wellbeing. So you need to know your personal triggers and manage those, which starts with self-awareness. From self-awareness comes the power of personal choice about what you will keep doing and what you will change.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”
Irish proverb

Further reading

For more on this, you may find these articles useful:


It’s important to move away from the shame culture around mental health, and make it OK to discuss it.

In a study by Mind, 48% of people said they’d experienced a mental health problem at work, yet only 2% of people said they were happy to talk to HR about it.

To end the stigma around mental health, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, are spearheading an initiative called Heads Together which has compiled a wealth of useful resources at Mental Health at Work. To find out more, watch this five-minute video of Prince William speaking at the launch:

Next month

As usual, the December article will be a round-up of the year. In January, we’ll look at being your authentic self – why it’s good to remove the ‘masks’ that cover who you really are, and confidently be yourself. Hopefully, this will give you useful food for thought for the new year!