The Problem Is You

Every day, I get bombarded with emails about “happiness”, “wellbeing”, “mindfulness” and “resilience”. Now, no-one, including me, wants people – whether they are employees or not – to be unhappy, in poor health (physical or mental) or unable to cope with things. But, as is often the case in the world of work, too many in HR are spending their time trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes.

So: you’ve got a manager who’s working 14 hours a day, spending every evening doing emails and is aging visibly before your eyes. It’s ok – just send them on a resilience workshop.

Or an employee on minimum wage who’s worried that they can’t feed the family all week. No problem – a bit of mindfulness meditation will solve that

Or that guy who can’t sleep because they are failing to achieve the ever demanding targets of the company – just stick a Fitbit around their wrist and give them some feedback on their heart-rate. That way they can worry about the fact they aren’t doing their 10000 steps a day as well as everything else. (And of course we can add to our HR metrics too, to optimise their work performance)

The issue is that all of these situations, the problem is passed to the employee. It is their fault they can’t cope. As responsible employers of course, we make sure they’ve got the tools to deal with their failure to cope with the situation; after that they are on their own. Rarely do we acknowledge, let alone tackle, the organisational symptoms that contribute to the problem. Instead, we shrug our shoulders and conclude that, with all the support we’ve given them, if they can’t hack it in our environment they know what to do.

After all, HR has no responsibility for things like pay rates, working conditions, culture, organisational development, performance management or training do we…?

3 thoughts on “The Problem Is You

  1. You are right about many initiatives (not just limited to wellbeing) in which we do sometimes tackle symptoms and not causes. There was an article in a recent HBR that talked about the unintended consequences of wellbeing schemes – like employees feeling under pressure to be participate, or that they can’t reach for the unhealthy option over lunch if they wish. For me, there are a couple of things to consider. One is that sometimes you can’t influence (or change all at once) the causes – but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on the symptoms too. If that sounds counter intuitive let me try and explain. Maybe you are going through a very difficult period at work – restructure, poor trading conditions etc. These may be outside the scope of what can be changed in the short term – but you can work on the impact that they have, e.g. through Resilience training.
    Also, wellbeing initiatives by their own nature send a signal, and sometimes that signal is right back to the cause. I used to work somewhere (as I’ve blogged) where long hours and presenteeism were rife. I used wellbeing (dispute howls of protest and in some cases laughter initially) to send a signal that it doesn’t have to be that way. Introducing mindfulness, changing the food from grease to healthy, promoting health etc, sent a different message to our people. That you didn’t have to work they way that we always had and this was a conversation that was ok – e.g. to give a damn about your people on a level other than just what KPIs they delivered that week. But you are right – wellbeing also starts with tackling pay, hours and all that stuff. Back to that Maslow malarkey. Hygiene stuff comes first.

    • As usual, I completely agree with you Gemma – I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t ever look at these issues and I take your point that in some very difficult business circumstances they are very useful tools to have to assist employees. The main thrust of my post was that they seem the latest flavour of the month and to have taken over from getting the organisation “right” – people are being given the tools to cope with crap rather than looking at why things are crap in the first place.

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