Where do responsibilities begin and end in managing wellbeing?

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Where do responsibilities begin and end in managing wellbeing?

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 27th November 2019. Revised 25th March 2020.

4 min read

Girl Stress ben-white-yy3GonY48N0-unsplashManagers expect that employees will turn up on time and be upbeat, fit and well and ready to do what’s asked of them.

Employees, in the main, expect that managers will give them interesting, good quality work that’s within their capabilities or maybe slightly stretching so that they develop.

At an economic level, it’s a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But at a psychological level it’s complicated.

At the psychological level, there’s a lot that goes wrong on both sides. The result is often a degradation in employee wellbeing, resulting in a reduction in employee job performance. Such results strain the economic contract and decimate expectations. So, what can be done to ensure that the expectations of both parties are met?

On the employee side, they live a complex life. They spend eight hours working, four hours getting to work and preparing to work, eight hours sleeping and four hours on private stuff. And then it’s the weekend where hobbies, sport or just ‘socialising’ occupies their time. They live socially with others. Work pays for their private lives.

Frequently, employees' private lives fall apart. And the disaster spills over into their work.

At work, employees live socially with their manager and colleagues. But humans compete for resources and battles rage, both openly and privately, between employee and colleagues and between the employee and their manager. And sometimes work lives fall apart. And the disaster spills over into the employee’s private life.

It’s easy to assert that the manager can’t be responsible for an employee’s private life. It’s easy for managers to demand that all employees meet their side of the economic and psychological bargains. But management is never that simple.

To manage employee wellbeing, managers must know what good (and poor) wellbeing is. They must be skilled at detecting it in employees and be able launch and administer management interventions, effecting corrective action to ensure that wellbeing is always good.

In effect, managers pick up all the pieces of poor wellbeing, whatever the cause - work or private. A manager can’t absolve themselves of responsibility for involvement, just because a marriage has broken down or the employee has just lost a relative. To do so would be extremely hard-hearted. And it would be illogical, since it might just need a small intervention to recover the employee’s wellbeing to good. The manager must always be mindful of their need to sustain value in their investment – the employee.

But where does the manager’s responsibility end? Is it really that all-encompassing?

If the manager senses that an employee’s wellbeing is poor because they are drinking frequently when not at work, do they intervene? If it’s private, do they regard it so and ignore it? If the drinking affects work, does the manager launch a wellbeing initiative or invoke the disciplinary procedure?

The answer is that the manager’s responsibility never ends. They must be interested in the whole employee – not just the ‘part’ that comes to work. Of course, the manage must know what they can and can’t influence. They can’t repair a broken marriage. And they can’t undo some physiological illness like Crohn’s Disease afflicting an employee. But they can make work adjustments to avoid a downward spiral in wellbeing. And they can bolster employee coping and resiliance.

They can and must maintain their investment.

That expands the manager’s responsibility squarely to span both the employee’s private and work lives. Of course, the detail known about the private life might be limited. But it does not limit the responsibility to ask, to listen and to act where possible.

So, a manager has limitless responsibility for employee wellbeing. They also have limitless ability to act, and to sanction, where the employee’s responsibility is lacking. The ultimate sanction is of course dismissal through poor capability – but the manager has failed if it gets that far.

You might think that employment is a contract between equals. It’s not. Managers must step up and embrace their responsibility to manage whole-employee wellbeing, albeit recognising that a big part of the scope of that responsibility will be marked ‘private’.