A journey to the centre: Corporate wellness in New Zealand

A journey to the centre: Corporate wellness in New Zealand
Many companies are encouraging their staff to take better care of themselves. Depending on who you talk to, the business benefits are either worryingly opaque, or as clear as a warm summer’s day.

The Wellness Syndrome author André Spicer brought up concerns around the dissolving boundaries between work and private life when he spoke to Fast Company.  He felt that the individual benefits of wellness programmes were not obvious enough to justify the intense corporate interest in them, suspecting something more sinister was going on.

He worried that visibly encouraging wellness in the workplace could simply create another anxiety-causing performance metric: “It’s not enough to be good at your job. You start feeling like you need to look good too.”

Spicer says wellness problems could also misused by companies offering them to help employees deal with stress while avoiding addressing the circumstances causing it.

“It’s doing things around the edges, but that has the effect of extending the workday,” Spicer said.  “So people have less time for the things we know from loads of studies of individual health and happiness tend to make people happier."

For better or worse, New Zealand companies are increasingly jumping on the wellness wagon. A 2013 report by Southern Cross, Gallagher Bassett and BusinessNZ called ‘Wellbeing in the Workplace’ looked primarily at the drivers of absence, but also took into account the need to maximise wellness. BusinessNZ’s chief executive Phil O’Reilly spoke of enabling “healthy, high-achieving business.”

According to the report, nine out of 10 enterprises surveyed considered improving employee wellbeing to be either desirable or a priority, although only a quarter put it at the top of the list.

The report said that in light of the economic climate at that time, it was unsurprising that other priorities took precedence over wellbeing, but its predictions that New Zealand’s long-term problem of hiring staff with the right skillsets may worsen seem to have come true. New research from PwC reveals CEOs are more concerned about the impact of a skills shortage on their business than at any point in the last six years.

Wellbeing in the Workplace says that working in an environment where employee health and wellbeing are taken seriously can help attract and retain the right staff.

Arriving at the AUT Executive Education Wellbeing Retreat from a series of retail conferences, my feelings about the upcoming two days were polarised. On the one hand, I hoped the retreat would fulfil the promise of that word—ideally, it’d be somewhere remote, where we could all hide in the forest and meditate until the deadlines went away and the phones stopped ringing.

My expectations were that it would be closer to one of the conferences but minus the free coffee.

The end result was different again. The venue, Zen Garden, is located in Whitford, about 40 minutes from central Auckland. It has magnificent views over the Hauraki Gulf and Rangitoto Island, and boasts 75 acres of grounds.

The gardens are meticulously kept, and we were given a lot of time to explore them during the retreat. The flaming Japanese maples, hidden ponds and inspiring contemporary sculptures all had a genuinely relaxing effect.

The first day began, to my relief, with coffee. AUT lecturers Dr Anne Messervy and Dr Aaron Jarden introduced themselves, then had us draw a picture of the person sitting next to us before signing and dating it.

Jarden is president of the NZ Association of Positive Psychology. He explained that his field focuses on the positive aspects of mental health – “What’s going right with people,” as opposed to clinical psychology, which focuses on “what’s wrong.”

In his introduction, Jarden referenced the public health initiative, ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’. These are: connect, give, take notice, keep learning, be active. He explained that the face-drawing exercise hit several of these buttons, which is why we all smiled when we did it (and why my teeth are so enormous in the picture).

The underlying relevance of wellbeing to the workplace seems to be about enabling high performance by removing distractions such as ill health or undue stress – there was no sign of Spicer-style “competitive wellness” or quantifiable metrics.

As an example of how wellness can be applied to work, Jarden had us write a description of our previous day in the office from the perspective of positive emotions – I chose “serenity” and got surprisingly far – before helping us to identify our personal strengths and values.

Another session with Jarden offered advice about relationship-building in the workplace. “Active constructive responding” roughly translates to “enthusiastic and practical support.” Responding to statements like this is apparently the best way to build high-quality connections with staff and colleagues. The worst way to communicate is through “passive destructive responses” or as Jarden put it, “Meh.”

He shared an acronym used by the police – DEAR. It stands for: Describe the situation; Express emotion; request an Action; Reinforce the consequences of that action.

There’s no such thing as “a job for life” anymore, so we should all take the time to figure out what we want out of our careers, where our strengths are and how we’d like to move through the job market before we’re forced into making fast decisions.

Jarden says humans are biologically wired to dwell on the negative, and we experience three negative emotions for every positive one. Sina Wendt-Moore, chief executive of Leadership NZ, encouraged us to brainstorm the benefits of being a “positive leader,” but in the course’s second day, life coach and holistic wellbeing expert Karen McCallum produced a long list of graphic consequences awaiting those who don’t keep their chins up and look after themselves.

She says she entered her current career path after being diagnosed with a thyroid condition at 30 years of age. Her brother had passed away, and she’d been pushing herself too hard. Now, she says, she thinks of disease as “inviting change.”

McCallum spoke of the damage done by stressing out over stimuli instead of calmly responding. She recommended breathing techniques for bringing the self into physical “coherence” and advised on nutritional issues.

Career consultant Robyn Bailey explained that change awaits all of us. Her message was that careers have changed. There’s no such thing as “a job for life” anymore, so we should all take the time to figure out what we want out of our careers, where our strengths are and how we’d like to move through the job market before we’re forced into making fast decisions.

A career used to be like a rocket, she says – “Point it in the right direction and fire,” – but now it’s a multiterrain 4WD that must be driven carefully. I liked her alternative metaphor best: “Some people’s careers are more like a garage full of stuff.” There’s a lot in these garages, with no pre-determined use, and construction is limited only by their creativity.

AUT’s Professor Bart Frijns and Lance Burdett also spoke, on financial wellbeing and enhanced communication plus building personal resilience, respectively.

The wellbeing retreat is the last public event to be held at Zen Garden. It has been an events centre and wedding venue for some time, but has been turned back into a home for one fortunate family from the start of this month.

And for those who skipped to the end, Jarden’s “cheat sheet” for wellbeing is: happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of meaning and purpose, playfulness, psychological flexibility, autonomy, mastery and belonging.