The Two Foundations Of Staff Wellbeing

The Two Foundations Of Staff Wellbeing

Our Consultant Psychologist GRAHAM FAWCETT gets to the heart of what makes for a happy, healthy team.

In his book Dying For A Paycheck, the researcher Jeffrey Pfeiffer identifies some of the most common ways an organisation harms its employee’s wellbeing.

You can probably guess a lot of them. 

Working long shifts. Working more than forty hours a week. Seeing team members get laid off or fired. Dealing with conflicts between work and family life. Giving staff little say over their job or environment. Placing high demands and short timeframes on them. And having poor relationships with co-workers. 

Unfortunately, I hear time and again from clients around the world that many of these factors are the norm in their workplace. This is particularly true for those of you working in the humanitarian sector and responding to crises, where conditions like long shifts and long working weeks seemingly cannot easily be reduced or eliminated. 

But even in the most trying of circumstances, there are two factors that an organisation can (and indeed should) do something about. Together, these factors account for well over 30%, possibly over 50% of staff wellbeing. And if staff think that either of these factors are ‘toxic’, then this can account for an overwhelming majority of staff distress. Let’s look at each of these two in turn.

Job Autonomy

This means having a measure of control and choice within the constraints of your job. The choices can be minor (like when to take a toilet break) or major (like planning your own workflow within a project). For example, the car manufacturer Volvo struggled with high sickness rates on its car production lines, with each employee doing the same job at a fixed point against a production line that moved inexorably.

But when they put teams of people together who travelled with each car as it was built, their productivity rose and sickness levels fell. Why? Because employees had choice, variety and control over their work.

So when employees have a degree of control over their working lives, it reduces stress. In other words, micromanaging doesn’t work. That’s job autonomy in a nutshell.

Social Support

Overwhelmingly ‘social support’ is key to employee wellbeing. Put simply, it’s the quality of relationships at work. And it can be broken down into two parts: ‘team cohesion’ and a ‘consultative leadership style’.  

Team cohesion is the degree of warmth, affection, and loyalty that team members feel for each other. People come to work and (for some of you) go into dangerous environments for the sake of a team, as well as for a larger vision. But in teams where relationships are poor, employees will be less motivated to engage with risk or to work on human rights issues.

“Micromanaging doesn’t work”

Meanwhile, a consultative leadership style is a leadership style that gives clear direction, but seeks input from key team members about implementation. For example consultative leaders make an overall project aim clear such as provide shelter to a population in an area and then consult key people about how to do that. Consultative leaders know their teams quite well and share in their challenges and circumstances.

On the flip side, when teams experience abusive or bullying leaders, they will have higher sickness rates and turnover, and will be significantly less impactful in health care or human rights campaigns, financial control and provision of services. For example, the UK’s National Health Service estimates that 9000 deaths per year in their hospitals are due to medical teams that are toxic. Compassionate and consultative leadership, together with high team morale, eliminates these deaths

So what?

These two foundations of staff wellbeing – job autonomy and social support – cross cultures. And in the humanitarian world, they are further informed by structural inequity, as Gemma Houldey explores in her book on ending burnout culture in the aid sector

So, is there scope for more job autonomy and social support in your organisation? If you’re a leader, and you want to do something about it, a cost effective starting point which will bring tangible return on investment and organisational impact, is to focus on eliminating toxic team dynamics and assuring levels of individual autonomy.

Our Culture Discovery service can help you get started. In it we can help you assess what’s working well and what’s working less well in your team. We can then work with you to plot the next steps. If this interests you, get in touch.

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