The Pitfalls of Wellbeing Days in the Workplace
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
More and more schools, universities and workplaces have well being days or mental health awareness days. This is usually part of an away day, an event, a business meeting or a national event such as World Mental Health Day. I have coordinated and delivered a number of these events or have been invited to be on panels or run workshops as part of a wider day. If you have stumbled across this article I hope it can help you not make these mistakes.
Wellbeing or mental health day being organised by one sole individual
This happens for one of three reasons.
1) There are less than 8 people in the organisation .
2) One person is passionate and loud enough that the bosses have decided it's the best way to quieten them down for the next 12 months.
3) Someone who doesn't have time has come up with the idea and delegated it to someone that can't say no.
Either way one person alone is going to only have the resource of themselves and only their perspective on what will work.
Solution: It makes sense for one person to lead on it but have a small group of individuals providing input. It makes it more difficult to plan but a more meaningful day if there can be a wider range of perspectives. Even in writing this article I am aware that it is the voice of one white woman, who has worked with people who have had trauma, complex and enduring mental health my lived experience is of depression and by no means cannot be the voice for the vast array of experiences. By checking your own perspectives and privileges it is a starting point for being diverse and inclusive. The more voices and perspectives that are engaged and listened to, the bigger range of needs can be met.
Confusing a Mental Health awareness day with a day to boost employee wellbeing
Now I am not saying it is impossible to have both concurrently but I have experienced many a wellbeing day that can potentially isolate employees with complex and enduring mental health. How an event is planned depends on what you want to achieve.
Solution: Really consider the purpose of the event. An event aimed at reducing staff stress levels is going to look different from an event that aims to encourage employees to disclose mental health conditions.
Giving the message about aiming to be happy
Happiness is just one of many emotions. We have a baseline of happiness that we tend to return to. If someone was happy all day every day would you not be a little concerned about them? Messages about good mental health needs to be more than a subjective feeling of happiness.
Solution: Talk about the purpose of all emotions and use flourishing and engagement.
Telling People to be emotionally resilient
It is communities and culture that create the ability to bounce back from adversity.
Solution: Provide a culture of support and wellbeing
Talks on mental health conditions without reducing stigma
I have been to plenty of mental health awareness events in which there is a mandatory talk and the presenter goes through a list of diagnostic symptoms and medical treatments and "signs to look out for". None of this information is helpful if it creates a distinction that reinforces stigma.
Solution: Talks like this are only helpful if they are delivered in an understanding way that we all have the potential to experience mental health and outline ways we can check in and talk to each other openly about it. Talks need to be injected with passion and compassion.
Invite in different support services to have stalls.
Letting people know about what is available and what is on offer can be really informative. But if you have a stall in a corridor that people can walk past in their lunch break it may not be accessible to those who wouldn't initiate approaching stalls.
Solution: Have leaflets, have a speaker, if you are going to have a stall have a reason for every employee to go over (A good example I have seen of this is a treasure hunt were employees have to find out certain pieces of information by talking to each stall holder.)
Offering meditation, bouncy castles and BBQ is not going to address overworked, stressed out employees
Yes these things are nice and can make people feel valued. Many events set off with good intentions. However, if you don't address the underlying organisational issues then an event may feel superficial and lower moral or have a detrimental impact on people feeling able to discuss mental health openly.
Having a culture in which staff are allowed to prioritise their health and can take time off sick without it being financially detrimental to them and without workloads building up can have a longer term positive impact on sickness. Recognising that an employees health also encompasses life events such as pregnancy or menopause and have procedures in place so that staff experiencing these can continue to be productive and feel valued by the company. Many staff or students may have caring responsibilities. By being an organisation that understands the impact of this you may maintain a loyal, compassionate and productive individual.
I was once invited to one event to offer guided relaxation. The event was on a none working day and employees had been instructed to attend the "fun day". It was squeezed into the one non working day between the attendees finishing one big project which had resulted in them working all the hours under the sun before taking on another big project. The employees didn't want to be coming into work on a day off for me telling them how to breathe to create relaxation. They needed time to connect with their life outside of work.
Thinking about the wellbeing or mental health promotion day itself. If you are asking employees to take time out of their busy day to attend an event when usually they do not feel that they have time to step away from there desk for a toilet break then address this issue first.
If an event is mandatory I would suggest having the ability to pick and choose how to participate.
A mandatory "bring and share" lunch
Ideas like a bring and share lunch can be useful in bringing people together but I would suggest that you avoid putting pressure on people to participate. Whilst you may thrive on cooking and feeding others, some may not have the finances, the skills or the time outside of work to prepare. Some people may struggle with eating in front of others or have complex dietary requirements and feel excluded or ashamed.
Solution: Make it optional, make it inclusive, put no pressure on people to sign up.
Being unclear on the benefits or how to disclose mental health in the workplace.
An employee will not see the benefits of disclosing mental health if they do not feel that it will be safe for them to do so or that reasonable adjustments may stigmatise. Counteract this by being clear about what the benefits of disclosure are.
Solution: Reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act (2010) are not a one size fits all approach. Many adjustments for mental health may be addressed by looking at wider working policies such as flexible working such as start times or remote working.
Budget for the event
I have seen events with virtually no cost be engaging and meaningful and I have seen events with bigger budgets have limited attendance. If you have the luxury of money to spend think about how it can be split to offer a variety of experiences. Evidence shows experiences that boost status, get you outdoors and that are meaningful or create a sense of success are better than providing a gift.
Solution: Evidence shows that spending money on nudging behaviours towards healthier ways of living are better than spending money on health information leaflets.
Your idea of fun or relaxation is going to be different from someone else so embrace diversity.
Be clear in your communication with staff about what you are offering and why. Experiences have a greater impact on our wellbeing than material objects.
Not having a clear outcome for the wellbeing or mental health day event.
If you want colleagues to be able to talk without stigma about their mental health give them the safety to be able to express their distress, enable your colleagues to use their strengths to be able to listen and support each other effectively.
If you want to reduce staff sickness ask yourself what is resulting in the sickness level that you have?
If you want an employee to feel valued how can this be expressed in a diverse way?
If you want to raise employee well being how are you going to measure this subjective experience?
Solution: Be sincere in the planning and be explicit about the outcome you can plan the day accordingly. Take a look at some ideas that might work for your event.
Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She offers a range of corporate and individual services and she is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.