From icing to cake: a deeper approach to workplace wellbeing

Why organisations should ditch superficial wellness perks, and instead prioritise meaningful, empathetic relationships
Matt Stephens
A cake

Consider this analogy. If wellbeing is a cake, many organisations have mainly been operating at the ‘icing’ level and not cutting through to the cake itself. In fact, the wellbeing approach in organisations has been primarily transactional in nature.

Think of the pandemic – in desperate need to address the declining emotional, physical and financial hardships of the workforce, the boom of wellness podcasts, mindfulness apps and exercise classes was phenomenal. However, while organisations have dedicated substantial resources to address these concerns, they just scratched the surface, as take up remained low in large part due to the overwhelming choices given to employees. What also became apparent is the need for meaningful relationships as the cornerstone of wellbeing especially with remote work becoming the norm. However, as the economic crisis continues to impact organisations, we are nowhere near solving the issue.

Our data highlights the seriousness of this issue. From an analysis of over 100,000 data points across multiple clients in the UK, the benchmark for positive wellbeing in 2022 was 64%. By the end of 2023, there was only a marginal increase to 65%. This implies that 1 in 3 employees grapple with negative wellbeing at work. The soaring number of sick days and the struggles with mental health and burnout is a huge red flag evident to many. With budget constraints, people are expected to do more with less at the expense of their wellbeing.

It also shows that if organisations do not prioritise the core issues - the 'cake' - meaningful relationships, first, efforts spent on transactional solutions—the 'icing'—will prove ineffective. And more importantly, organisations have no time to waste.

The current speed of change

It’s worth noting that the incoming generation of employees, poised to become future managers, seek an evolved work culture driven by purpose. There is a noticeable power shift from organisations to employees. Job hopping is now commonplace, especially amongst GenZs, with loyalty and trust towards employers harder to earn. With the prevalence of TikTok, especially #WorkTok content appearing daily, companies’ mistakes are more visible and unforgettable.

This demands immediate change. Organisations should reimagine themselves as greenhouses—nurturing individuals and investing in their growth—rather than factories, stifling their potential. As we move forward, the role of managers and leaders in fostering connection, support, and empathy within teams will increasingly gain prominence. Tailoring support to individuals' unique needs will be essential, particularly as AI and robotics infiltrate the workplace and emphasise our emotional intelligence.

This means pivoting from technology-reliant solutions to human-centric approaches. A greater acceptance and understanding will pave the way for a nurturing, gratifying work environment where employees truly flourish.

Yet, it would be unfair to say that every organisation is falling behind their wellbeing promises. On the contrary, many progressive companies are leading the way. For instance, the HR Director of a large transportation company implemented a minimum 15-minute conversation per week between managers and their direct reports. The result? A remarkable 50% increase in engagement scores in the past year. At the heart of this simple conversation lay the foundations for meaningful relationships that arent about the priorities or targets of the individual but how they are feeling, what's on their mind, the stuff that makes us human. To think, one simple shift caused a 50% increase in engagement in a year! 

The proof is in the pudding

Real change in employee flourishing begins with recognising the crucial role a manager's relationship with their employees plays. Allocating time for meaningful conversations is essential, as it allows for genuine connections and helps managers gain insight into issues that may impact productivity, presenteeism, and absenteeism.

Managers should become true, empathetic leaders. This means making an effort to understand significant events in their employees' lives. The lack of awareness due to infrequent or superficial conversations hinders relationship building and trust. Providing support and showing appreciation can leave employees feeling more valued. Effective communication, combined with thoughtful organisational diplomacy, can serve as a catalyst for transforming workplace culture.

Promoting flourishing in the workplace revolves around three primary dimensions: personal wellbeing, interpersonal relationships, and a purpose that transcends the individual. It's about focusing inward, branching outward, and ascending upward, with each facet requiring attention to enable employee thriving. Higher emotional intelligence, meaningful relationships with managers and colleagues, and a sense of larger purpose – whether spiritual, existential, or rooted in love - are interconnected elements vital for a journey to increased connection and ultimate flourishing.

Employers should go full circle when implementing wellbeing programmes and strategies. We should return to the beginning: engaging in meaningful dialogues with employees, understanding their motivations, and determining the best ways to support their growth. In the age of dominating technology and overconnectivity, the power of simple human conversation should not be underestimated. In fact, it can move mountains.

Embracing a culture of 'conversational peace' represents a strategic shift that could have significant benefits. This involves dedicating time for active listening, nurturing relationships, and genuine conversations attuned to how employees feel. While the surface might appear attractive, there's no doubt that a deeper, more substance-oriented approach is needed.

Throughout the pandemic, the emphasis within corporations has been placed predominantly on mental health, but in the future, we anticipate a shift in focus towards helping employees thrive and flourish. Employees will not just be in a state of adequacy; they will instead be aligned with their purpose and find fulfilment in having fruitful work relationships built on empathy and understanding.

Such an aspiration may seem overly ambitious, yet significant results can be realised when placing employee flourishing at the forefront. When sincere dialogue, active listening, and compassion come together, the path towards this goal becomes not only conceivable but highly achievable. Perhaps then we can finally scrape off the icing to reveal the perfect cake.

Written by
Matt Stephens
CEO of Inpulse
February 21, 2024
Written by
February 21, 2024