Why you can’t have performance without wellbeing

For the last two years, we have been living through a health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has brought home to many of us just how fragile and precious our physical health – and the health of our loved ones – is.

It has also taken its toll on our mental health, whether through anxiety about catching Covid or the loneliness of social isolation and enforced working from home. According to research from charity Mind, around a third of adults and young people feel their mental health has deteriorated since March 2020.

Many organisations stepped up their wellbeing game during 2020 and 2021, in particular supporting staff around mental health. The CIPD has found that 84% of employers increased mental health provision during the pandemic.

Now, as the UK continues to open up, is not the time to stop focusing on wellbeing. In fact, it’s more important than ever. Mind’s research also found that more than half of people were worried about being near and seeing others again as restrictions eased last year – our ‘Living with Covid’ world brings with it a whole host of new anxieties.

Many organisations have ambitious recovery or transformation plans, with leaders keen to put the experience of the last two years firmly behind them. Performance and productivity will be at the heart of these – but neither can be achieved without wellbeing. Resilient people will lead to resilient, high-performing organisations.

Research from Deloitte, conducted in 2020, has found that for every £1 an employer invests in mental health support, the organisation gets £5 back in reduced turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism (working while unwell). With many employers now struggling with the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, wellbeing will be a central plank of talent attraction and retention plans.

It isn’t hard to see why someone not feeling their best is unlikely to produce their best work, but the UK has long suffered with a presenteeism problem and unhealthy working habits. At the heart of our traditional working culture is an insidious, often unspoken notion that putting in long hours and working while sick is a marker of dedication and commitment. The latest CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work report shows that this ‘always-on’ culture even remained a problem during the pandemic, with 77% employees continuing to work from home when unwell. Little wonder then that 79% of UK workers report having experienced burnout (according to research from Ceridian).

So, how can we best improve wellbeing and therefore performance? To do so requires thinking of wellbeing in its most holistic sense. Too many organisations still take a reactive, sticking plaster approach to wellbeing, putting in place initiatives and programmes to tackle problems that already exist rather than embedding a more proactive approach to ensure many problems never have the opportunity to arise in the first place. While yoga classes, Mental Health First Aiders and access to an EAP are all great benefits, it’s far more effective to create a positive culture of wellbeing, aligning employee wellness to all other elements of the people strategy, from engagement to leadership.

Fortunately, a model already exists to help bolster wellbeing and to directly link it to organisational performance: positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman’s PERMA model.

PERMA stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. By considering each of these, leaders can build and embed a flourishing and thriving culture that encourages everyone to take accountability for their own and others’ wellbeing. Flipping the narrative to think about creating the conditions for psychological wellness rather than tackling mental illness at crisis point can be immensely powerful.

Alongside the PERMA model, taking a strengths-based approach to work can also help boost wellbeing and performance. Various studies have found people who regularly use their strengths at work are more engaged, more productive and higher performing. Giving people the opportunity to regularly play to their strengths helps to increase their levels of wellbeing, self-esteem and happiness and to lower their levels of stress.

The pandemic has shown us all too starkly the dangers of not taking health seriously. Placing wellbeing at the heart of people and business strategy will not only help us to maintain a healthy, happy workforce but a healthy and thriving organisation too.