A Health Psychology Student’s Perspective on the Health & Wellbeing @ Work 2023 Conference
By Louise von Stockar
I am a Health Psychology MSc student at King’s College London and currently doing my industry placement with Working2Wellbeing. W2W invited me to accompany the team to the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference, where I was able to attend talks from researchers and experts focusing on the intersection between work and wellbeing. As an aspiring health psychologist, I find it fascinating how our experience at work can influence not just our mental health, but also our physical wellbeing. This is largely influenced by how we choose to interpret events – if we, for example, experience events in the workplace as threatening, this will lead to a stress response that over time can lead to a number of chronic health issues. However, the crucial role of interpretation means that small adaptations in the workplace can have big results in the perception of employees. The following are my key learnings for businesses from some of the talks I was able to attend at the H&W@W conference:
How to communicate changes in the workplace
Changes in the work environment can easily trigger resistance in employees, as our brains are constantly trying to predict threats in the future. Resistance not only hinders progress in the workplace, but this perceived state of threat is also harmful to employees from a health psychology perspective. In her talk, Dr Zara Whysall explained that resistance is easily triggered by perceived threats to status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness, which should be addressed when change is communicated:
Status threats (feelings that the proposed change will undermine one’s standing compared to peers) can be mitigated by affirming the employee’s specific strengths and continued value to the company. Certainty threats (feelings that the future is no longer secure, which leads to rumination and reduced performance) can be mitigated with clear, thorough communication, a strong vision, and transparent planning: no news is not good news! Autonomy threats (feelings that one’s area of control is threatened) can be mitigated by understanding employees’ key freedoms and including them in co-creating elements of change. Relatedness threats (reduced quality of social relations) can occur when new teams are created. Feeling suddenly cut off from co-workers can trigger a similar neurological reaction as physical pain, and have effects of physical health. Relatedness threats can be mitigated by encouraging informal communication and allowing new teams to spend time to bond and build trust. Lastly, fairness threats (feeling unjustly treated compared to one’s peers) can be reduced with transparent distributive and procedural justice.
Employees should not be confronted with the planning stage of change right away, instead they should first be presented with arguments about how the risks of not changing outweigh the benefits of resisting in order to win their support. Overall, to reduce resistance to change and the associated stress it is important to over-communicate, share a strong vision, give people a voice and opportunities to ask questions, and support staff to become more comfortable with the remaining ambiguity by being as transparent as possible.
How workplaces can harm employees’ health
Some work cultures (for example, those with high pressure but poor social connections) can bring out negative behaviours in people, which seem to clash with their conscious personality. These perceived “out-of-character” moments can also happen in every-day life (think sudden road rage) and are often experienced as distressing. Dr Michael Drayton calls these unconscious tendencies the inner “saboteur”, and suggests regularly slowing down and reflecting on one’s behaviours and feelings to make sure that decisions are made by the conscious instead of the unconscious mind.
Out-of-character behaviours at work can also lead to moral stress, which occurs when a person witnesses, is involved in, or fails to stop an event that is against their moral values. In the workplace, this can include pressure not to follow due process or not being empowered to stop misconduct. Rachel Lewis outlined how long-term moral stress threatens people’s identity as a good person, which can have effects on emotions (feelings of powerlessness, shame, and betrayal), cognitions (impaired sleep and ability to detach, excessive food and alcohol consumption), social relationships (withdrawal from friends and family, feelings of distrust towards work relationships), and performance at work (reduced engagement, loss of commitment). Long-term, many of these outcomes are also a threat to our physical health. To avoid moral stress, Rachel Lewis suggested embedding clear ethical standards throughout all organisational practices and requiring leaders to encourage a culture where everyone feels safe to acknowledge mistakes and take responsibility. Employees experiencing moral stress can reduce the impact by looking for allies within the organisation and reflecting on what the experience of moral stress can teach them about their values and needs in the workplace.
How the workplace can be used to increase wellbeing
The workplace can also be a resource to build resilience and increase wellbeing. Dr Blerina Kellezi outlined how having a shared social identity in the workplace increases motivation and performance, and is linked to positive effects on health due to increased support, control, trust, and reduced stress. Social identification is however also connected to a tendency to have a poorer work/life balance and longer working hours. In her talk, Dr Anna Mandeville argued that businesses have an interest in addressing mental health concerns as part of their work cultures, as this also helps build organisational resilience. Currently, people tend to wait for a crisis to seek support, which means that the affected on average live 15 years with an ignored mental health issue before asking for help. Instead of waiting for a crisis and inevitable effects on performance at work, there should be an increased focus on prevention – also in the workplace.
In her talk, Dr Alka Patel explained the relevance of happiness in the workplace: happy people live longer, make healthier choices, are more resilient, are more productive, and contribute more to society. She outlined 9 happiness factors which can help increase happiness, summed up in the acronym AIM TO CARE:
- Altruism (acting with other people’s happiness in mind)
- Immersion (regularly accessing a flow state)
- Mindfulness (self-awareness, being tuned in to your sensory experiences in the moment)
- Thankfulness (noticing and appreciating what other people are doing for you)
- Optimism (finding a more positive framing of the situation)
- Compassion (noticing other people’s needs, alleviating suffering)
- Anticipation (looking forward to something: booking a holiday sometimes induces more happiness than the actual holiday)
- Relationships (Belonging to a group, having a shared purpose)
- Emotions (experiencing the full human experience: not blocking out negative emotions!)
These are just some examples of factors influencing employees’ experience at work. As a health psychology student, these talks confirmed my belief that long-term, a considerate workplace with positive social connection and clear communication will benefit both businesses and employees.
If you are a student looking for industry placement or a similar equivalent, do not hesitate to get in touch.
Dr Zara Whysall: Managing Resistance to Change
Dr Michael Drayton: The Saboteur at Work – How the Unconscious Mind impacts on Individuals and Teams
Rachel Lewis: Lifting the Lid on Moral Stress at Work
Dr Blerina Kellezi: Social Identity and Its Role in Building Resilience
Dr Anna Mandeville: Reducing Stigma and Barriers to Mental Wellbeing for Your Workforce
Dr Alka Patel: The Science of Happiness
Working To Wellbeing (W2W) provides consultancy and intervention for health and wellbeing at work. We provide wellbeing and rehabilitation services, supporting employees with physical health, mental health and long term conditions, the 3 key causes of presenteeism and absence. We join the dots between the physical and mental health issues that cause and perpetuate poor health.
Our specialist clinicians are highly trained to provide a truly integrated service that results in health behaviour change and optimum work capability.