In rude health: doing business in the 1950s © Debrocke/ClassicStock

In an article from 1957 about how to “keep managers healthy”, the Financial Times cited a company doctor’s claim that executives rose to the top because of their “better-than-average bill of health” that enabled them “to work longer and harder without showing undue signs of strain”.

Contrast that with today’s understanding of how executives should tackle the stigma of mental illness at work. Richard Heron, BP’s chief medical officer, told a panel I chaired this week how the energy group’s incoming chief executive Bernard Looney had opened a dialogue about mental health. For example, he has discussed in online company forums how he grew up in a household under the shadow of depression.

Company doctors have long since reinvented themselves as “directors of wellbeing”. The bland catch-all heading is easy to lampoon. Stress, though, is now the leading cause of sickness absence from work.

Alliance Manchester Business School’s Cary Cooper, who convened this week’s panel, pointed out that tackling stress-related illness is no longer just about providing “sushi at your desk, or mindfulness at lunch — that’s the low-hanging fruit”.

What, then, will vault wellbeing initiatives into the higher branches? Six lessons stand out.

First, organisations have to work harder at eliminating the stigma of stress-related illness, particularly in sectors where it remains unfashionable to admit to feeling the strain.

Andy Rhodes, chief constable of Lancashire Constabulary and national lead for wellbeing of the force in England and Wales, said that when police officers were asked to rank where they would go for help with mental health concerns, human resources and occupational health came dead last.

Employers need to shift from a culture of “caring for” people to one of “caring about” them, according to BP’s Dr Heron. But that also means making sure the organisation itself can cope. Lancashire police used to have to deal annually with some 150 referrals for psychological support, from 6,000 staff. That has now spiked to 1,000 a year. “You have got to gear up your services as the stigma reduces,” said the chief constable. “Otherwise, you’ve overpromised and underdelivered.”

Second, in the words of Monika Misra, GlaxoSmithKline’s head of employee health and wellbeing, resist the temptation “to sheep-dip everyone” with a one-size-fits-all programme of mental or physical fitness. What may work for people returning from extended sick leave may not work for others going through an organisational transformation. Increasingly, GSK is moving towards greater personalisation of the resources it offers.

The third lesson: ensure you measure and analyse the effect of what you do. When she took over as director of health and wellbeing at construction group Mace, Judith Grant found little data. The first audit of wellbeing revealed ways teams could improve. Only when improvements were linked to performance targets did behaviour start to change, though. In the next phase, Mace plans to combine information about wellbeing with safety, quality, productivity and customer satisfaction data in the hope of being able to analyse more accurately what works — and what does not.

Fourth, don’t trust technology alone to do the job for you. I expected our panel about the future of wellbeing to focus heavily on apps, wearables and tech solutions. Far from it: technology is as much part of the problem; email and messaging tools are rightly blamed for contributing to workers’ cognitive overload.

Yet if Rolls-Royce can monitor every aspect of an aircraft engine’s health in flight, why not track the wellbeing of the engineer who built it? David Roomes, the group’s chief medical officer, pointed to obvious obstacles over data privacy.

Companies could overcome some of those hurdles by giving staff control of their own data so they can improve their own performance. It is more important, though — the fifth lesson — for organisations to pay attention to the “soft stuff” that helps inoculate staff against stress. “It’s about conditioning and mindset and recovery,” said Dr Roomes. “We see people just flogging themselves to a standstill and that’s massively flawed.”

Finally, make sure you do not concentrate only on reactive measures and ignore the root causes of worker distress. It may be necessary to back a pitch for a slice of the corporate budget with data and targets, but, as one audience member pointed out, employers really should not have to make the “business case” for keeping their workers healthy and happy. Even the company doctors of the 1950s knew that prevention was better than cure.


Twitter: @andrewtghill

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