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Wellbeing in the workplace: Here’s how its affecting your staff, and your bottom line

When I was in my third year of university studying journalism, our lecturers had an interesting way of preparing us to go out into the real world to find employment. “The journalism industry is dying,” they told us, after making us intern at regional newspapers, of all places to inspire hope. “You’ll be lucky if you get a job after this.”

While I understand they were trying to lower our expectations – Meryl Streep won’t be your boss at Vogue and real life isn’t like The Devil Wears Prada – it was one way of ensuring we’d have anxiety about the future of work, or 80 percent of us would end up in PR or communications roles.

After a few years in the industry, I’ve been around long enough to experience some of the pressures: late nights, long hours, commercial pressures, unrealistic deadlines, and like my tutors had drilled into us, an uncertain future.

I’ve seen the need for wellbeing in the workplace, and I’ve heard it talked about through the companies I talk to through my work at Idealog. Often, it gets dismissed as one of those luxury ‘nice to haves’, like offering your workers yoga classes. But research is emerging that shows that ignoring employee wellness in the workplace is really hurting our productivity, and therefore, our bottom lines.

The annual estimated cost of mental health and addiction problems is $12 billion, or five percent of our GDP. Absenteeism and what’s called ‘presenteeism’ – employees that come to work in an unproductive state – are estimated to cost New Zealand businesses $2 billion each year.

But what is probably the most scary statistic is the World Health Organisation has warned that mental illness will be the primary cause of disability and absence in the workplace by 2030 if companies don’t act now.

This got me thinking, are the creative industries even more vulnerable to this? The closest research I could find to New Zealand with a creative industry lens was Melbourne-based agency Tank’s research, the 2018 Mental Health & Creative Industry Report. Its founder, Jim Antonopoulos, was inspired to look into it after an Auckland-based psychologist told him that her main clientele was creative professionals.

The report was filled out by 358 creatives in eight countries, including New Zealand. The findings? Only 50 percent of respondents said they were doing okay, mental health wise. Interestingly, the single word that appeared the most in responses was ‘fear’. Fear was what most got in the way of their creativity. I thought back to what we’re teaching journalists coming out of university: ‘you might not have a job’. While the concerns are fair, should we not be saying, ‘Here are the top three adaptable skills you need for the future of work’ and ‘Here’s why you need to learn digital marketing, podcasts, and video skills alongside print’.

We have being doing our bit to highlight the importance of wellbeing at Idealog, seeing as our audience is the creative business sector. We ran a Wellness Month, and here’s some of the key takeaways we’ve learned about tackling wellbeing in the workplace.

On a business level, what can you do? We went out and asked some of New Zealand’s top companies, such as Xero, Trade Me, and FCB what they’re doing at a policy level for wellbeing, and these were some of the answers that came back.

  • Flexible work hours and five days wellness leave a year
  • A ‘wellness room’ installed in the office where people can rest, pray or relax
  • Access to a free and confidential counselling service
  • Gym subsidies
  • Yoga classes
  • Mindfulness training
  • Workshops to improve financial literacy
  • Inspirational guest speakers
  • Free weekly fitness bootcamps
  • Designated time off to recover after working overtime

While these are a great step in the right direction for companies, what we also uncovered was people, not tools, processes or fitness classes, will drive real change. The most influential way to create a dialogue around wellness and mental health happens at a human level.

In a world filled with automation, uncertainty about the future of work and lots of digital noise – genuine, human connection in the workplace matters.

It’s not as a simple as asking, ‘Are you doing okay?’ Because if you haven’t created an environment of trust where people feel comfortable enough to open up to you, they’re going avoid answering your question. Top-down leadership in this area is powerful, such as Xero’s chief executive Craig Hudson, who opened up about his mental health struggles to reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage his own staff to be honest, too. The company now has renamed ‘sick leave’ as ‘wellness leave’ so staff can take leave worry-free, even when their challenge is something invisible to the outside eye.

The 2018 Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report found “New Zealand is facing a rising tide of mental distress and addiction impacting families, communities and businesses” but it also found “We can do more to help each other”. To me, that’s what it all comes down to: wellness in the workplace doesn’t have to be hard or inaccessible. It’s as simple as doing more to help each other. Where we can make real impact is human to human.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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