Get happy, and get on with it

Projects to boost staff wellbeing are all the rage, but some people wonder if the interest in workers' psychological health belies a rather less altruistic agenda. Melanie Newman reports

January 21, 2010

The psychological health of staff seems to be a preoccupation of universities today: a search for "wellbeing" and "human resources" via Google UK throws up seven universities among the ten highest-ranked websites.

The University of Cambridge's "promoting psychological wellbeing at work" page, which came top of the Google list at the time of Times Higher Education's search, outlines some of the ways staff can act to improve their wellbeing. These include "knowing how to access objective, confidential support when necessary, eg, Occupational Health, Human Resources, Counselling Service" and "reviewing work/home balance regularly, engaging in activities/hobbies outside work and exercising regularly".

Farther down the Google list is Roehampton University, whose wellbeing programme offers therapies such as reiki, reflexology and Indian head massage. By availing themselves of these and other offerings, "people will feel relaxed, energised and ready to meet any challenges", according to the university's website. "People will feel valued and appreciated with a positive impact on motivation and enthusiasm."

Institutions are being encouraged to set up such initiatives by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In 2008, Hefce funded a series of "wellbeing-themed workshops" at six universities to the tune of £174,000; the project has been extended for a further two years and has its own website ( The site says that investing in wellbeing can reduce absenteeism and staff turnover; it also cites PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2008 report Building the Case for Wellness, which calculates a return of £4.17 for every £1 spent on staff wellbeing.

In the US, where the "wellness" agenda evolved as a means of reducing employers' spending on healthcare insurance, university staff are swapping information on weight loss and blood pressure. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in December 2009, the change has helped staff improve their fitness, but it has also "opened up a part of people's lives that used to be private" - their health - and in some cases has led to co-workers scrutinising each other's bodies and habits.

Of all the wellbeing projects under way in British higher education, the University of Bristol's "positive working environment" initiative has won the most plaudits. In 2009, it scooped the Outstanding Human Resource Initiative Award at the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards in June, and in September won the Global Human Resource Development Award from the International Federation of Training and Development Organisations.

HR managers at Bristol have identified a link between people who score highly on "wellbeing indicators" in staff surveys and good departmental results in the research assessment exercise.

But Guy Gregory, Bristol's personnel and staff development director, admits that the argument that improving wellbeing can boost institutional performance is far from proven. "It's a really complicated question, and not every individual is susceptible to the same inputs," he says. "You might be someone who really wants to go to the gym and sees being given time off in the day to do that as a huge advantage. Or you might be someone with no interest in the gym who thinks it's negative that the other person isn't there."

Bristol's approach has been to "cover all the bases" in the hope that everyone will find something they like. "High absence rates weren't the driver here. It's more about trying to genuinely improve people's working environment."

A survey of Bristol staff found that the existence of a senior common room for academics and senior administrators that was separate from the "staff club" did not fit with the concept of the university "team".

"The SCR had quiet space, newspapers and coffee, while the staff club had a skittle alley and a bar and was somewhat seedy," Gregory recalls. Despite resistance from "both ends of the spectrum", the rooms were closed and replaced by a single shared space, which includes both a skittle alley and quiet areas. "I can't say that by removing the SCR we've made people's lives better, but it was causing a low-level irritation - a sense that this thing was inappropriate," Gregory says.

As well as making life better for existing staff, wellbeing initiatives can serve as recruitment aids.

With cuts to higher education funding beginning to bite, the traditional methods of recruiting top research talent in the face of the international competition - offering higher salaries and other perks - are under threat.

Academics, who tend to be driven by intrinsic rewards and lifestyle, should be more amenable to the wellbeing agenda than many other employees.

"Engagement, wellness, spirituality, commitment and other happiness-related constructs have a natural appeal to many academics," says John Storey, professor of human resource management at The Open University. "On the other hand, they tend to be self-directed employees and rather sceptical of management of all hues."

Sceptics may well point to research findings from the UK and the US that reveal that measures of employee despondency (including that of managers) have increased in the past decade, despite the rise of the wellbeing agenda.

"Well intentioned as some of the positive psychology initiatives may be, they could be interpreted as mere sticking plasters in the face of a wider deterioration in employment conditions in many organisations," Storey says.

Matthew Knight, vice-chair of UK Human Resources and director of HR at the University of Leeds, is leading Hefce's wellbeing at work project. He suggested in a recent presentation that the "wider deterioration in employment conditions" and the wellbeing agenda are inextricably linked.

Universities are restructuring and making people redundant, the skills required of staff are changing, and employees have "perceived stress and health issues" and are uncertain about their jobs and pensions, he notes. Wellbeing is integral to the HR strategy for approaching this set of challenges because it "is essential for sustainability and cohesion".

Wellbeing is not "fluffy, whimsical, soft, about being 'nice' to people, about keeping staff 'happy' or some marginal preoccupation unconnected to the 'bottom line'", he adds.

Gary Tideswell, Leeds' director of wellbeing, explains that "resilience" is a key area of the project. "There's a public-sector squeeze, and some people will make a decision to leave and some will want to stay," he says. "The aim of wellbeing is to make sure that the people who leave are supported through that process and that the ones who stay are helped to cope with what's changed. It's about rebuilding that connection between employer and employee, making sure that people know where they fit and how they can move forward together as a group. We call it 'resilience', while others call it 'staff engagement' - it's all part of the wider wellbeing agenda."

This all sounds rather less benign than the university's website would suggest. "Our innovative wellbeing plan is already changing working life at Leeds - from healthy week to improved sporting facilities," it announces. "We're also using the results of the wellbeing survey to make the university a better, healthier place for you to work."

The institution carried out a wellbeing survey in 2008 and produced action plans aimed at reducing stress. But a University and College Union representative says the ambitions expressed in these plans are being ignored. "We're seeing increased use of casual labour instead of decasualisation; management bullying going unchecked and unresolved; less consultation instead of more; management behaving outwith protocols and procedures; reinforced top-down pyramidal management instead of the promised flatter structures. From the UCU's perspective, Leeds is increasingly becoming two universities in one: one with exemplary policies and values, and another where some managers carry on oblivious to these."

Roger Seifert, professor of industrial relations and human resource management at Wolverhampton Business School, is unsurprised by the Leeds experience.

Wellbeing "fits with a very limited management-dominated set of notions apparently rooted in the social psychology of work, but really derived from the need to get more for less out of employees during both good and bad times," he explains.

The claim that the goal of "soft" aspects of human resources management such as counselling is to "protect" staff is entirely false, he adds. "Overall, 'wellness' is a sham. It is aimed at distracting attention from more stressful work, more bullying and the weakness of unions, which mean workers have less 'voice' at work."

Interest in the benefits of human wellbeing dates back to Aristotle, who believed that the best form of government would be one that promoted the happiness of citizens.

But Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, says the contemporary use of the term, which is shorthand for emotional wellbeing, has little to do with Aristotle's eudaimonia, which is closely tied to virtue.

The new emphasis on emotional wellbeing is, Hayes says, "at its most ridiculous" in the HR approach to redundancy, a process that oftens brings the relationship between HR and individuals to a breaking point. "The process is woven through with consultations, life-coaching and offers of formal and informal counselling and often ends with an 'exit interview' and an evaluation form. One HR director told me that the important thing was that staff felt that they went through a process that they valued. The absurdity was that they were often being sacked."

Anger might be a more appropriate reaction to redundancy than a feeling of being valued, Hayes argues. "The clearest example of the therapeutic distortion is union outrage about poor process such as 'sacking by email'. The complaint is always about the lack of consultation and support. But it's not the consultation or processes that matter. It's the sacking. At this point, it might be better for all concerned to suffer a little 'ill-being'."

A UCU representative at Bath Spa University concurs. During a recent round of job cuts, he recalls: "Colleagues facing redundancy were given leaflets called 'Coping with Redundancy', which told them how they would be feeling. They might have been better received if they'd come wrapped around a brick."

Any consideration of university wellbeing programmes has to take account of increasing government interest in citizen contentment. Richard Layard, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and the Government's "happiness czar", maintains that increasing happiness can save on social welfare costs, principally by encouraging depressed unemployed people into work.

Paul Stenner, professor of psychosocial studies at the University of Brighton, says it is hard to separate wellbeing from happiness and the "quality of life" agenda as espoused by the likes of David Cameron during his bid for the Conservative leadership. "All three seem to be comparable and have in common the dream of tackling social problems at the psychological/emotional level." The aim is flawed, however, because it tends to equate health and wellbeing with being socially adapted, he says.

Psychology as a discipline has a long history of treating social problems as if they were individual issues. One notorious example is "drapetomania", a "mental illness" diagnosed in black slaves by the 19th-century American physician Samuel Cartwright: its primary symptom was an urge to escape. Countless political dissidents in the Soviet Union were diagnosed as mentally ill and then committed to an institution, as were unmarried mothers and errant teenagers in the UK until the middle of the last century.

"Unhappiness - and psychological states in general - often reflect the realities of the world," Stenner says. Add to that the notorious unreliability of much psychological knowledge and its tendency to shift with historical and cultural contexts, and it becomes clear that any policy on psychological health will be built on shaky foundations.

Psychological knowledge is also "very much entangled with forms of social power", he observes. The think-tank Demos recently suggested that a decrease in social mobility is due in part to a lack of "character capabilities" such as empathy among children of poor families and the offspring of parents who lack self-esteem.

"The happiness agenda is a technique of governance," Stenner warns. "And it is not necessarily benign."


The following material was taken from case studies of institutional schemes presented on the website

City University London

Initiative: "A Brand for Wellbeing" - creating a recognisable brand to unify all the university's wellbeing communications. The university holds wellbeing events and roadshows several times a year, where a whole day is given over to health checks, screening, counselling, stress checks and "body MOTs".

Aim: To combine student and staff wellbeing campaigns under one brand and "show everyone at the university that we were serious about wellbeing".

Cost: "It didn't come cheap, especially using a creative agency from outside the university, but we wanted to focus on a professional campaign."

Results: "We carry out surveys after the road-shows and wellbeing days ... It's too soon to see if the wellbeing project has improved overall staff wellbeing. We are planning to run more wellbeing days alongside a staff wellbeing survey."

University of Birmingham

Initiative: Birmingham University Employee Support - a confidential assessment service, including counselling, mediation service and Citizens Advice Bureau.

Aim: To direct individuals to the support most appropriate for them rather than providing one-size-fits-all support.

Cost: The Rewarding and Developing Staff fund (from the Higher Education Funding Council for England) paid for the services and for an employee-support manager to develop and run them.

Results: A reduction in the number of people using external counselling and an increase in mediations.

Birmingham City University

Initiative: Wellbeing event - stalls hosted by not-for-profit and commercial organisations offered information on alcohol abuse and community safety partnerships. The event also featured free workshops on relaxation techniques, healthy eating, t'ai chi and self-harm awareness.

Aim: To promote good mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing.

Cost: £6,000

Results: "Evaluation showed that the majority of attendees rated their experience of the event highly." Plans are being made for a similar but larger event as part of a "Celebrating Diversity, Promoting Wellbeing" week in March.

University of Derby

Initiative: "Coming Unstuck", a stress and mental wellbeing training session for staff in the form of a drama session led by actors from Impact Universal. "The company uses a range of powerful and emotive techniques delivered live and fully interactively."

Aim: "To help our people reach their full potential by encouraging a proactive and preventive approach to stress and mental wellbeing".

Cost: "Excellent value when compared with other training and development in this field, which often incurs additional travel time and costs."

Results: "The first time we used this style of training, staff were reluctant to join in and feared having to 'role play', but the message soon got round that the training is carried out by actors and not the attendees ... We have been monitoring the benefits of this training by running questionnaires before and after the workshops."

University of Bolton

Initiative: "Get Active" scheme encouraging staff to keep fit

Aim: To reduce sickness absence, which was at a peak of 16 days per person in 2004 with 22 per cent of absences related to stress.

Cost: £50,000 from the Sport England £1 Million Challenge Fund to encourage workers in the North West to get active.

Impact: Sickness absence among participants has dropped. "31 per cent of staff had participated in activities and 19 per cent indicated that it had improved their performance at work."

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