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Workplace Wellbeing & Stress - How to deal with resistance

With just a couple of days to go to the Workplace Wellbeing & Stress Summit 2012, one of the critical elements of moving people from Stress to Employee Wellbeing is how to deal with the various challenges and obstacles that you will invariably come up against in delivering a wellbeing project. In this blog, I am outlining what these are liable to be and how best to address them.

Having understood the financial and business costs of sick absence in your organisation, and after the skilful use of HR information, data and statistics to hopefully secure buy-in from your senior management and stakeholders, it is time to deliver- implementation can be the most demanding and trickiest aspect of your whole project.

But why? Often it is resistance from staff, managers and trade unions who are worried and reluctant for the changes that will be needed to change peoples’ behaviours in order to have a healthy workplace. These challenges and attitudes need to be empathised with, understood and addressed if your project is to be a success. The particular issues you may face in delivering the project will largely depend on your strategy for improvement- is it focussing on improving the lifestyles of individuals?, is it to provide more occupational health support?, will it involve more hands on management of absent staff etc? However the major  challenges and obstacles that you are likely to come up against tend to fall into 3 specific areas:

Staff concerns

Staff themselves may be apprehensive that a wellbeing plan may just be management ‘code’ to herald in a tougher approach to absence management and that the aim of the project is to take firm management action if people are off sick and this perception can put the workforce on the defensive about the project. It is important for you to explain to employees from the very beginning that the aim is to have a healthy workforce and the steps to bring about that. It means understanding peoples ‘concerns- if for example, one of the initiatives is to have mandated return to work interviews then the form of the meetings will need to be laid out. If more occupational health support is to be provided, again you need to communicate what service will be available, how to access it and the improved outcomes that are expected from that.

Where for example a tougher approach to attendance management is being called for then the reasons for that need to be made clear so that people are aware of the scale of the issue and the proportionate response to that so that people can feel engaged in the process;

Often, your strategy will involve encourage people to take more control of their own physical and mental health.  People may be cynical about this so it will be important to explain what people can do to improve their health – eating healthier (get their ‘5 a day’), taking more exercise, taking breaks from concentrated periods of work etc. Often the key here is to illustrate to people the advantages of becoming healthier in terms of the benefits to them, as that tends to be more effective in allowing people to change.

Management concerns

Managers can be concerned that the strategy will either lead to a more ‘relaxed’ approach to absence management (‘pink and fluffy’) or that they will need to take firmer action (‘getting tough’). The approach that is to be adopted needs to be laid out and again spell out the advantages of the new system so they can see why they need to change and what is required of them at all levels.

The changed needed may take various forms. It may be the managers will need to be more pro-active in managing absence from their teams. For example, return to work interviews may be mandated, managers may need to enquire more about reasons for someone’s absence without intruding into private matters and that skill may be something that needs to be developed in people, so learning and development might need to be addressed in the organisation.

Managers may also be concerned about the extra time or resources that might be needed to implement the strategy- this needs to be explained and how it can be managed so that engagement is strong.

Trade Union Concerns

If there are active trade unions in your organisation, you will need to engage with them so that you can address concerns they may have. Like the staff they represent, they are likely to focus on what it means to how absences are managed in future. They may be hostile to such an approach fearing a more ruthless management approach, but hopefully you will have consulted with them at an early stage in the wellbeing strategy process so that what is going to happen should not be a surprise to them. Expect though to deal with concerns about whether their members are likely to be more firmly managed through absences and you are likely to have to highlight the advantages to them and their members of having more progressive wellbeing initiatives in place and to have a healthier workplace.

In my next blog, I will finish this series by talking about how to evaluate the wellbeing process and increasing employee engagement.