Burning the midnight oil: Designing better workplace wellbeing




Written by

William Smith-Stubbs

August 2019

It’s almost 8pm.

It’s a Thursday.

Ash, a 34 year old Senior Manager in Taxation, is painfully aware of this and would rather be at home. But, it’s end of financial year and her to-do list is a mile long. A bell chime alerts Ash to another addition to an inbox already bursting at the seams.

Ash sighs and flicks open the email. It’s an all-staff notice from leadership, reminding everyone to dig deep this month — but also to take time to look after their health. Ash can’t help but chuckle. She closes the email and takes another bite of cold pizza.

When will you be home? The text buzzes in her pocket. It’s Ash’s fiancé. It’s not the first text tonight — or this week.

Soon. Sorry. Ash replies, and throws in a few emoji to soften the blow. They both know ‘soon’ is relative.

Ash isn’t the only one in the office this late. Dotted about the floor, the cold glow of computer screens marks a few others chipping away at their to-do’s. Ash manages a smile at one of them, as they glance quickly over to her desk, and they offer a small nod back.

Ash takes a moment to think how ironic it is that in a building full of hundreds of people, she’s never felt more alone.

Ash isn’t the only one

Ash is a hypothetical case. Yet, she would fit in just fine in many offices around the country: poor employee mental wellbeing is endemic in the Australian workplace.

Workplace stress has caused 42% of respondents to consider resigning, 40% have looked for a new job elsewhere, and 25% take time off each year as a result, according to the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association.

Poor staff mental wellbeing will cost Australian business $6.5b.

The business case for addressing poor mental wellbeing is also mounting. Australian businesses incur an estimated $6.5 billion by failing to provide early intervention and support for mental wellbeing. Yet, for every dollar we spend on identifying and supporting workers with mental health conditions, businesses can tap into a 500% return in improved productivity.

“Employees leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog.”— French legislator Benoit Hamon

It’s a human-business problem

These challenges to employee health and productivity pose questions to employers of both morality and liability.

First, businesses have an ethical duty of care to their employees to ensure their health and wellbeing is not adversely affected by their employment — we remind people to ‘lift with their legs’, why is mental wellbeing so different to protecting someone’s spine?

Second, how can a business claim to be operating at its absolute best when its employees’ mental faculties and subsequent productivity go unaddressed? If your competitors’ staff are happier and healthier, how can you expect to compete?

By improving employee mental wellbeing we can help employees become more productive and successful while reducing absenteeism.

It may be argued that some of the contributing factors in poor employee wellbeing lie outside the office walls —e.g. your employee just lost a grandparent, or is trying to balance raising kids with building their sales team — and this may fall outside of an employer’s purview. And yet, thanks to the advent of email and messaging platforms, employees are often expected to be ‘always reachable’. We’d argue — you don’t get to have this kind of unbounded office without investing in a holistic sense of care.

Building a better BDO Australia

This opportunity to rethink, protect, and harness employee wellbeing is front of mind for BDO Australia.

When spur: first met BDO, they were already in the midst of championing a selection of wellbeing initiatives targeting physical health and education, professional development and supporting not-for profits and the local community.

To solidify these efforts, BDO commissioned spur: to develop a comprehensive and holistic strategy for employee mental wellbeing based on Human Centered Design. In essence, to take apart what it means to be mentally well at BDO and build a complete plan on how we might achieve and measure this.

This was not just an effort to care for those within BDO’s community, but to also uncover significant business opportunities.

Getting Ash in the room

For a wellbeing strategy to have legs and go the distance, it must be owned, co-designed, and championed by those it impacts. It needs to have the input and buy-in of people like Ash.

So, a Wellbeing Working Group was formed with a broad cross-section of BDO staff (from Intern to Partner) to elicit their insights and experiences into what would be a company-wide strategy. These champions of wellbeing worked with spur: over several months and participated in a series of Design Thinking workshops to help craft the bones of the strategy. These workshops were complimented by a range of learning sessions with BDO leadership and data from surveys sent out to all employees.

This human centred co-design process ensures the longevity and sustainability of BDO’s strategy: it’s a strategy shaped by the people who will benefit from it.

Turning human complexity into strategy

Human beings are wonderfully complex.

Designing a strategy that is inclusive, diverse, and holistic is a fine art. How do you help the working parent with two kids and a mortgage, as much as you do the graduate trying to find their way in a new working world?

In order to start to categorise and formulate interventions, we looked for emergent themes from our workshop results. As unique as individuals are, our common experiences and feelings are strikingly similar. These threads were refined into six total themes that form the spine of the strategy. This started to coalesce what it means to be mentally well holistically — it’s not just running at lunch or taking a meditation class. These themes took the whole life equilibrium of an employee into account across Physical Health to Work Relationships and sense of Purpose and Fulfilment.

These themes act as focusing tools to consider how to break down the complexity of employee mental wellbeing. They form the basis of the menu of solutions and tools provided within the strategy.

Yet actions and ideas themselves aren’t enough. spur: adopts an ‘impact first’ approach to any project. We look in-depth at how to create, and measure impact, working backwards to solutions. We ask: if you can’t measure your impact, how do you know it happened at all?

If you can’t measure your impact, how do you know it happened at all?

Under each of the six wellbeing themes our working group developed a range of indicative outcomes, and practical means of measuring these. Such outcomes point to positive movements towards, and negative movements away from, improved mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Designing solutions for people

We provided BDO with a suite of over 30 diverse solutions to help achieve outcomes that contribute to positive mental wellbeing of BDO staff.

Solutions ranged in scope, cost, impact, scale and logistical requirements. Some were easily implementable within current BDO culture — while others intentionally require significant paradigm shifts. Solutions were specifically built in response to needs ideated and articulated by the working group.

BDO has already made significant investment in addressing partner and employee mental wellbeing. Moving forward we are hosting further workshops with Partners and the Wellbeing Working Group to pilot solutions and implement the strategy. The response from the staff to these efforts has been extremely positive. This adoption speaks to how important this effort is and how eager staff are to see change.

Undertaking a project like this is an effort to look after and better the lives of those the company employes. Employees like Ash.

This is something to be celebrated.

Our takeaways

For businesses looking to shift the culture of mental wellbeing in their workplace, our three key takeaways are:

  1. Design employee strategies with employees — not just with them in mind. By including all employees in the co-design, the strategy will be better informed and more effectively adopted.
  2. People are complex and so are our lives. As with anything complicated, breaking it down into themes can help make some sense of everything. What are the basic components of wellbeing? What nourishes this? What depletes this?
  3. Design a strategy that is holistic, not just tackling one or two things. Ideally, it should encompass all the facets that make up wellbeing (or, your focus area) and work in concert. You’ll find great overlaps in each effort this way.

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