Social health is more than mindfulness

Julia Hobsbawm
Falun Gong practitioners meditate 19 Apr
10m UK working days per annum are lost to stress (Source: Getty)

I don't want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but please don’t tell me that you have a mindfulness room at your place of work.

Because if you do, you may be stuck in Wellbeing 1.0 and it’s time for an upgrade: to social health.

Exactly 70 years ago this year, the World Health Organisation defined health – a definition intact today – as “the presence of physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of injury or disease”.

Read more: The City is coming together to end stigma around mental health

In the pre-computer era, back in 1948, social meant class, mostly, and its relationship to nutrition. Today, social means something else entirely. It means being connected, constantly, at work, to deadlines, often to bad management, to so-called infobesity of incoming emails, news feeds and, of course, to a blizzard of meetings.

Wellness and wellbeing is now big business: the Global Wellness Institute reports that it is worth $3.7 trillion – that is twice the size of the pharmaceutical industry.

What has happened in the past 70 years in health and wellbeing is that the culture has changed, and with it the market for everything from trainers and fitness apparel to vitamins, gyms, and mindfulness apps (I have several myself).

Even Marketing Week declared that “2018 will be the year wellbeing becomes a boardroom priority”. But while it has become cool in business to show your commitment to wellness, the onus has been on the employee’s mental and physical stress, not the company’s contribution to preventing it rising in the first place.

EU data shows that 10m UK working days per annum are lost to stress. A new book, Dying for a Paycheck, by Stanford business academic Jeffrey Pfeffer, puts it starkly: “modern management harms employee health and company performance”.

We therefore need more than just a sticking plaster approach to helping employees when stress hits. We need to prevent it in the first place, or at least try to lower the intensity and up productivity as a result.

Where diet, nutrition and sleep has become an embedded mantra for overall fitness, social health is about taking three factors at work as seriously. I call this trio of elements the K.N.O.T – of knowledge, networks, and time.

Put simply, you cannot de-layer and de-stress a workforce which is drowning in data, has unreasonable deadlines, and regards clicking reply-all to emails as networking and being connected to the internet constantly as a good thing.

Far better to redesign work around physical connections, face-to-face networks, limited screen time, sharing of knowledge, proper consultation about timeframes, and, of course, time management. Let go of presenteeism (where employees work more hours than required) and allow people to treat their calendars and diaries like their bodies: in full control of what goes in them.

Research shows that the average workplace interruption from email can rise to 80 separate episodes in a day. The OECD cited 10 metrics of wellbeing in 2014 and none of them focused on connectedness, even though it now pervades everything.

The sooner we regard connectedness itself as the modern metric by which we assess the health and wellbeing of the workplace, the faster we are likely to reduce the estimated £27bn cost to UK Plc as a result of all those lost stress days.

All of this means the way we talk about, think about, and implement wellbeing in the workplace has to change. We need to be honest where wellbeing is a tick box exercise – and no, we don’t need Mindfulness Rooms.

Read more: The benefits of learning to control our emotions

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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