Are our expectations of hard-pressed managers too high?

Many employers now “get it” when it comes to recognising the value of promoting and proactively managing employee health and wellbeing. But are our expectations of hard-pressed managers too high?

Employee health and wellbeing – is employee health and wellbeing becoming too much of a full-time job for managers?

Anyone who enjoys reading these blogs will probably recognise there is a phrase, or variation of it, that pops up regularly – what should employers be doing or taking away or learning from the topic being discussed?

The reason for this of course, is straightforward. It’s simply a useful way to signal to the reader that here is the “call to action”, the action point or the point to take away and think about.

However, is this constant requirement for employers to do “something” when it comes to health and wellbeing, problematic?

Employers are bombarded almost daily, by the need to do this, that or the other around health and wellbeing – to  better support (to give just some recent examples) transgender employees, female employees going through the menopause, employees who are feeling anxious or stressed, employees who are in emotional crisis or feeling suicidal.

Line managers are urged to encourage and push employees to be and become more active, to have a better work-life balance, to eat better (especially when working nights), even to sleep better.

Vital role of the line manager

This is all well and good and there is a compelling body of evidence to point to the pivotal role of the line manager in terms of effectively managing employee health and wellbeing at a day-to-day level.

It is important too, that line managers don’t simply delegate responsibility for health and wellbeing to their occupational health provider or HR – that the links between health, engagement, productivity and good management don’t become lost because “health” has somehow become compartmentalised or over-medicalised.

But there is also an important point to be made about how all of us as individuals need to be taking greater responsibility for our own health and wellbeing – and lifestyle choices – and not assign responsibility to “society”, the government, the NHS, our employer, or whoever it may be.

The fact that increasing numbers of employees expect their employer to look out for and look after, their health is, at one level, a positive thing.

It shows there is a growing expectation in the workplace nowadays for employers to show they take a proactive approach to health and wellbeing, whether that be around the working environment, benefits, organisational and management culture or all three.

More attractive, engaged workplaces

Being strong on health and wellbeing is increasingly part and parcel of just being a “good” employer, one that is attractive to work for and therefore better at recruiting and retaining talented people, and therefore potentially more engaged and productive, and therefore more competitive and profitable. So, a virtuous circle of sorts.

But it also needs to be recognised that for any employer not actually working directly within employee health and wellbeing, employee health and wellbeing will inevitably be something secondary to the “day job”.

It may, undoubtedly, be deemed important but there will always be conflicting departmental, team or individual pressures – deadlines, projects, responsibilities and challenges – that will need to take precedence.

Individual responsibility

The key, therefore, is to be striking a balance. Yes, health and wellbeing professionals need to be reminding employers about the serious challenges, opportunities and responsibilities they should be addressing around employee health and wellbeing.

But it is also about recognising that, at the end of the day, there is only a finite amount that managers and employers can do.

It is about recognising that one of the messages employers need to be getting through to their employees is that health and wellbeing ultimately comes down to individual choices, to individuals taking control of (and responsibility for) their own health and wellbeing “destiny”, as much as relying on others to give them advice and guidance.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health points out: “The fact that we as employees, spend so much time at work and will often, in effect, be a captive audience means employers do have an important role to play in promoting, guiding and directing good employee health and wellbeing, as well as actively supporting those who have health issues or needs.

“However, at the same time, we need to recognise that employers can only do so much, even those with the best intentions. In an ageing and increasingly sedentary workforce, it is also up to all of us to step up – quite literally sometimes – and take responsibility for our health and wellbeing, our choices and behaviours,” Lucy adds.