Ashley Davies: Boosting employee wellbeing pays

The Japanese rajio taiso had undoubted benefit in terms of productivity. Picture: Getty

The Japanese rajio taiso had undoubted benefit in terms of productivity. Picture: Getty

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Schadenfreude is the sign of a poor workplace. Its opposite, mudita, is far more productive, says Ashley Davies

A BELOVED former English teacher of mine used to employ a neat trick when he thought we were losing concentration: he would make the whole class run around the school building and start work again. His colleagues probably thought he was being needlessly eccentric and the head teacher may have dismissed it as time-wasting, but us, we’d scurry around in a fit of sweaty giggles because we thought we’d somehow got one over on The Man (one of life’s simple pleasures, I’m sure you’ll agree).

Helping staff to relax and get fit is in every business's interests. Picture: Getty

Helping staff to relax and get fit is in every business's interests. Picture: Getty

But we’d get back to our desks feeling like we’d had a treat, and, having been given a bit of crazy time, accepting that it was now time to focus. More importantly, the blood was flowing, our heads had been given a gentle flick in the brain butt, and as a result we loved those classes and aced all the exams.

We’ve all seen footage of Japanese workers engaging in rajio taiso – mass exercise drills that usually take place in the morning. For a long time the rest of the world made fun of what looked like totalitarian Callanetics, but then laughed more quietly when Japanese productivity levels left the rest of the planet eating their dust. The Indian government recently announced that it was going to offer free yoga lessons to its three million civil servants and their families. The aim is to make them more healthy, relaxed and productive, and while it is unclear whether the sessions will be compulsory, it is rumoured the country’s police officers won’t be given a choice in the matter, due to a recent boom in lardiness, tardiness and a subsequent propensity to get awfully cross. The idea of anyone being forced to do yoga is funny enough, but strong-arming angry policemen into learning to relax is hilarious.

You don’t have to be a hemp jumper-wearing mung bean enthusiast or someone who thinks nothing of wrapping their leg around their neck to acknowledge that, if something makes your body or mind, or ideally both, feel healthy and good, you’re more likely to perform well and be more positive. Study after study proves it. I’m no athlete, but on the days when I don’t swim before work I’m a lot more irritable in the office. Guidelines from the National Institute for Care Excellence (Nice) say: “Promoting the mental wellbeing of employees can yield economic benefits for the business or organisation, in terms of increased commitment and job satisfaction, staff retention, improved productivity and performance, and reduced staff absenteeism.”

But living, as we do, in a world in which so many employers are forced into short-termism due to being beholden to flighty shareholders, it’s not really surprising that some struggling operations would ignore the recent Sheffield Hallam University study which found that for every £1 invested in wellbeing there’s a £3 return in improved efficiency and productivity.

In this country it’s mostly the big, rich companies that plough money and time into helping their staff feel good in ways over and above the traditional hug-in-an-envelope – the gigantic bonus – by engaging the services of people such as Jade Allan, an Edinburgh-based yoga teacher who, alongside Happiness Works, specialises in workplace wellbeing, emotional intelligence and stress-reduction programmes to avoid mass burnout. The big players are the ones that can afford to subsidise gym membership – often even providing these facilities in or near the actual place of work.

But in reality, employers don’t have to be loaded to make small but meaningful changes to staff wellbeing. I used to work for a magazine that gave away advertising space to a shiatsu practitioner in return for free back and shoulder massages for the staff. I can’t even begin to tell you how good that made everybody feel.

The University of Bradford, in a bid to be seen as a more attractive place to work and study, recently collaborated with the consultancy Wellbeing Associates to draw up a strategy. The study found that simple acts of kindness had a big impact on staff. As they put it: “A brief, heartfelt comment from an employer can provide useful insight into the culture of a workplace, such as this one: ‘The little stuff matters… when a manager says thank you it matters’.”

In an ideal world, it shouldn’t require an expensive research study to discover that being kind to staff and showing gratitude can make a difference but, heigh-ho, sometimes those busy high heid yins have loftier things on their minds. And most people are more stretched than ever before these days so it’s not hard to see why they are more focused on their own issues than making life more tolerable for others.

Giving staff fun projects that aren’t directly related to work is a positive approach, in my view. While there are benefits to an employer occasionally throwing money behind a bar, there is evidence that these events often result in people talking about work, or talking about each other – something that’s not always positive. But when they are sent on a cookery class, for example, their focus is on learning something new and seeing each other in roles other than what their jobs require of them.

Taking this concept of out-of-office projects a step further, a lot of firms do recognise the value of mudita (though I doubt very much that they’d use that word), a Buddhist concept meaning “happiness in another person’s good fortune” or “sympathetic joy”. It’s the direct opposite of schadenfreude. A lot of companies give staff time off for charity work. I know people at RBS, for example, who’ve had time off to improve the habitat for puffins (making a puffin happy must surely be the ultimate mudita). It was a bit physically challenging and everybody went home feeling proud that they’d done something truly helpful.

I’m certain that if more employers helped people to be kinder to themselves – physically, mentally and emotionally – and each other everybody would feel the benefits.

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