Is it time to rethink your employee wellbeing strategy? Part1: “do less”

Rethink Wellbeing

Is it time to rethink your employee wellbeing strategy? Part1: “do less”

Rethink Wellbeing

We think so…

We’d like to offer a fresh and challenging perspective on the hot topic of improving employees’ wellbeing, mental wellness and workload.  Controversially, in a world where leaders are being constantly sold must have services, apps and interventions in this space, our view is that in the main, a “do less” strategy will give greater benefit than launching yet more initiatives.

Achieve less by doing more?

Employers are doing lots more these days to try and improve the well-being and mental health of their employees – we are cheering them on all the way, for the intent at least.  However, we wonder if they aren’t addressing these issues from the “wrong end” and in a way that is “bolt-on” and not built-in.  We’ll try and explain:

“Wrong end” refers to strategies focused more on the treatment of symptoms as opposed to prevention.  E.g. providing a free counselling service or encouraging meditation practice whilst at the same time over-pressurising and micro-managing people.  Or offering resilience training; helping people cope with the stress and uncertainty of the latest top-down change programme where they will have to reapply for their jobs.  Or running financial wellbeing awareness training whilst not offering a living wage or wage increases that keep up with inflation.

“Bolt-on” by this we mean the universal layering-on of more stuff that employees are expected to engage with, regardless of whether they like the idea or not.  Having free fruit in the office, a laughter station, subsidised gym memberships, or having an app that bombards you with questions, tips and reminders will be great for some of us, but for others it can be impersonal, sometimes seen as tokenistic and by some, even disingenuous.

What is the evidence that the “do more strategy” works?

The providers of bolt-on interventions parade all sorts of seemingly compelling evidence about the human and financial benefits of adopting their services. At the same time, an independent review of all the academic research to date finds that there is little strong evidence that bolt-on initiatives make a significant or enduring difference. The headline finding is that “There is some evidence that workplace interventions can improve mental health and wellbeing outcomes, though the size of the effect is often small. Negative effects of interventions are observed in some instances.”

What do we know about the effectiveness of workplace mental health interventions? Kings College London.

Funnily enough, not too many instances of burnout are attributed to a lack of fresh fruit or insufficient desk yoga sessions


What are the causes of poor wellbeing that work creates?

Thankfully, much more is known about the causes of poor mental wellbeing at work than about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the interventions intended to improve it.   Interestingly, none of the causes identified are a lack of the things that the “bolt-on” interventions provide.  They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, consistent with the causes of employee disengagement[1] and inversely correlated with the accepted conditions for high levels of intrinsic motivation[2].     



Achieve more by doing less?

Doing less managing that is. Or less command and control managing to be more specific. By significantly reducing or removing the top-down imposition of programmes, initiatives, targets, coercions, superheroes, quotas, deadlines, reporting requirements, rules, ways of working, etc. and allowing more freedoms and autonomy you will be acting directly on the common causes of poor wellbeing and deteriorating mental health of your people. An additional happy consequence is it leads to the release of time, both for those making the demands and those following them. This, in turn invites the question of what to do instead?


Many of us experience being “overwhelmed”; simply too much to do and not enough time.
A direct benefit of the “do less” strategy is that it results in a lightening of the “bureaucratic load” imposed on people…


Devote the freed-up time to develop more human-centred approaches.

What we are suggesting here is not an initiative, it is better management “built-in” as opposed to accessories “bolted-on”.   It is not more work, it is different work, or perhaps “work different”.  Current research and our own observations point towards the following as good preventative practices:

  • Actively working to create a climate of ever-higher levels of psychological safety[1]. That includes people feeling comfortable saying no.
  • Humble leadership[2]. Power distorts relationships, therefore, leaders need to actively work on building open, equal and equitable relationships that put people first.
  • Autonomy and decentralised decision authority – Allowing more freedoms and enabling people to make more of the decisions closer to the action
  • Greater transparency. This is more than just relaxing the access to files and folders on the company’s servers.  It is about leaders and those with influence talking candidly about failures and their own hopes and fears.
  • Create awesome jobs – End-to end jobs where people have the opportunity to see things through to the point where they have an impact.
  • Encourage experimentation.  Creating an environment where there is space and time for “safe to try” experiments and where it’s okay to fail and learn.

But where to start and how?  Getting real change happening in each and every team in just some of these areas can feel daunting.  Added to which many of us have been conditioned to default to a programmatic approach to change, which is exactly what we don’t want to do.

There is another way.  The Vitality Index (VI) identifies for each team in the organisation the three areas of practice that if changed will have the greatest benefit.  Our external and impartial facilitation creates a safe space for the teams to explore the insights and commit to change. The Organisational Vitality Playbook inspires and encourages them to come-up with changes that they are truly bought into.  

What results is ever-better practices and management with the ingredients for your employees to experience better mental wellbeing “built-in”.  How about that for a strategy?


[2] Humble Leadership: the power of relationships, openness and trust. 2018 Edgar Schein, Peter Schein

This is a co-authored post.   

Mark Williams is Mark is a successful FTSE 250 HR Director turned consultant and VitalOrg Associate. 

Ben Simpson is a Co-founder of VitalOrg and leads on client operations in the UK.

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Fix Your Culture before it’s broken

Fix Your Culture before it’s broken

Culture; critical to success and stubborn to shift

How many of you have written a business plan recently? For a new start-up, or a spin-off? Perhaps for a new iteration of your existing business, or a new subsidiary or venture into a new market? Hands up those of you who have included a section on the market, competition, the legal implications, the investment required, the return expected. All of you of course. And how many of you have included an organisation chart, board and ownership structures? Again, pretty much all of you. Now, how many of you have dedicated a section on how it feels to work in your organisation, to be a customer, how decisions are made, what type of conversations you might overhear, how information is shared, how feedback is given? In short, about the culture you intend to create? 

I guess that not many hands are left up by now. And just to be clear, in all business plans I have ever produced – and I have written a lot – it was never part of my thinking either. Which is really peculiar, because if there is one thing crucial to a company’s success while at the same time hugely difficult to change once established, it is culture. And don’t say that culture is something you can’t (pre)determine or influence. Sure, there are intangible elements to it, but as culture is also the result of behaviours, language, processes and other actions, surely it is worth some advance thinking rather than just letting it happen?

There must be a tipping point at which an organisation changes from a start-up to an established organisation, somewhere in the scale-up phase, where this cultural DNA gets established. I like to refer to it as the stem-cell phase, in which an organisation can still take any shape and become any sort of creature it would like to be. But beyond which the roles, processes and habits begin to harden and reinforce each other, become stronger – in a way – and also more difficult to change. 

Reed Hastings, of Netflix fame, learnt this lesson too. Reed’s first business venture pre-Netflix involved a software company called Pure Software. Although in the eyes of most of us still a very successful business, Hastings was frustrated with the loss of innovative spirit in the company as it grew larger. From a nimble, fun, entrepreneurial start-up, its success and resulting growth seemed to inevitably lead to more structure, more processes and procedures and a workforce that would suit that ‘safety-first’ environment best. Although the IPO of the company made Reed a wealthy man, he realised that in order to not end up with the same culture in his next venture, he would have to start out differently. 

So at Netflix, he defined a few very clear principles that he hoped would ensure that the culture he would end up with would be as entrepreneurial and nimble as a start-up, despite its growing into a successful, large outfit. Under the mantra ‘Freedom & Responsibility’ he established principles around trust, transparency, feedback, decision-making, and various others.  Ultimately, and not without some bumps in the road, these principles led to a very different culture, with the nimbleness he was after, and employees free to express their creativity and take ownership for their decisions. Not to mention a highly successful existence as the market leader in video streaming services. 

What could this mean for you? 

Well, if your organisation is a start-up/scale-up and still in its stem-cell phase, this is a good time to ask yourself some probing questions about what kind of organisation you would like to be. Are you happy to follow the conventional route: a nice hierarchy, plenty of policies & procedures, a top-down approach, some semblance of command and control? Then perhaps you will be just fine letting the organisation evolve as it grows. This default position is after all what most of us are familiar with and won’t challenge, even if it comes with the usual side-effects of bureaucracy, low staff engagement and loss of entrepreneurial spirit. 

If that prospect fills you with horror, for instance because you believe that work should be an opportunity for people to express their whole selves, or because the nature of your business is such that your people will be better positioned if they are fully empowered and supported, or because you feel there is a competitive advantage to be had by doing things very differently and engaging the brains of your entire workforce to achieve that, or perhaps because of all of the above… Then there is still time to ask yourself some very fundamental questions and think through:

  • What it should feel like to work in your – future – organisation or to be one of its customers
  • What a good service, product or customer experience looks like, and what that requires from your organisation
  • How – and where – decisions are made and what happens if something goes wrong
  • How people interact with each other and feel psychologically safe 
  • What qualities you look for in your people, and who recruits as well as appraises them
  • Who sets salaries and based on which criteria
  • How you deal with information, sensitive or otherwise 
  •  What the primary skills and behaviours you will be looking for in your management: supportive, coaching? Or fixing, directing, controlling?
  • Etc…

… AS WELL AS how all of these factors work together in harmony so that they reinforce each other and ultimately lead to a successful business in all its aspects.

But what if your organisation is well past its stem-cell phase, is it doomed? Well, probably not. But a fundamental overhaul, a complete change of its culture, behaviours and practices will be a hard and lengthy process. My suggestion would be to not be over-ambitious: start small, with experiments based on what really helps the frontline in delivering better, with teams that are open to change. While at the same time shaping the desired behaviours at the top level of the organisation and start behaving yourself into a new way of thinking. With some luck, change within your teams will begin to take on a momentum of itself and, accelerated by the changed behaviours at the top, starts to nudge other parts of the organisation to move in the same direction. 

Alternatively – and with large, complex organisations I believe this the more viable option – consider spinning out the part of the organisation most keen on cultural change and allow it to find its own path. Properly separated from the mother organisation and securely protected from being pulled back in by her gravitational force, this will give it the best possible chance to press the re-set button on its culture and truly reinvent the way it works. 

So, my message to those of you lucky enough to be part of a nimble, creative start-up, where the CEO makes the coffee and job titles are still pretty meaningless, is this. Make the most of this time to visualise your future self. Picture yourself 5 years from now, with ten or a hundred times more colleagues. And start shaping the cultural building blocks for that organisation now, before it needs fixing.

This Blog was authored by Paul Jansen of Trustworks.  He is passionate about helping organisations realise their full potential by unleashing the capabilities of their people and have built a reputation for introducing Buurtzorg’s concept of ‘self-management’ to many organisations in and outside the UK, predominantly in health and care providers, social enterprises and other organisations. 

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5 Ways to Maintain a Strong Small-firm Culture as You Scale

5 Ways to Maintain a Strong Small-firm Culture as You Scale

In the early days of your startup, good company culture might happen naturally- but as you plan to hire at pace, culture will be something you have to actively curate.

Here’s 5 ways to maintain a small-firm culture as you scale.  

Define and embody your values

When it comes to your company values, you need to practice what you preach.

In your early days when you are making a lot of the hiring decisions yourself, you might have an idea of what’s important to you.

And this might work when you have a team of 10 who all get on, but as you scale, this needs to be translated into a clearly defined set of brand values that are lived by your team.  

Establishing what these values are will not only help you to roll out effective marketing and build relationships with your customers, but it’ll also define your hiring strategy and align your team to your company mission.

Make considered hires

A startup is only as strong as its team, and a bad hire can send shockwaves across your business.

So instead of focusing on bringing in the best talent, look to hire the right talent for your company.

And involve your team in the process. If there’s poor representation in your hiring team, this will be reflected in your future hires.

When it comes to assessing talent, don’t fall into the trap of making snap decisions off the back of CVs. Your best hires will be people who are aligned with your company values- not just those who have attended a big-name school.

Use scorecards to assess each candidate against a pre-determined list of requirements and consider using technical tests and gamified assessments to add another layer of objectivity to your hiring.

Clear communication

In today’s remote and hybrid world, a lot of people don’t want to return to the office full time.

This is a cause for concern for startups trying to establish good culture with teams that have never met face to face.

Establish what methods of communication work for your team and then put this into action. This might be daily team calls, weekly catchups, regular one-to-ones, or even social calls that are in the diary that don’t centre around work.

And with every new hire, make sure that it is clear who to go to with any questions or support. Don’t drop the ball on onboarding just because you’re no longer sat together in an office.

You may not be able to keep up with every individual win from your team, but encourage people to shout about what’s going well, and to celebrate as a team.

Appreciate different people work differently

Not everyone’s cut out to be a leader. And that’s okay.

Understanding your team and taking the time to talk through their progression plans will help you to put the right people in the right positions.

Talk to your team about long-term and short-term plans, and the steps they need to take to get there. Not only is this great for company culture, but it also helps boost retention and employee motivation.

The natural career progression route puts senior team members into leadership or team lead roles. But sometimes this does more harm than good.

The skills involved in software development or design etc. are very different than the skills needed for leadership and people roles.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone makes a good leader.

People stay in their jobs because of people. Culture is such a huge part of any role, that making one bad leadership appointment could cost you more than you bargained for.

Remember your why

Every company has a why at its core.

If you’ve done your hiring right, this should be a mission shared by your team.

Scaling your company will never come without its challenges. But keeping your why at the heart of what you do will help keep you on the right track.

And if you want help with your hiring, we’re happy to help.  

This blog was guest authored by Róisín Phelan, content writer at ISL Talent. ISL are an award-winning UK recruitment company who partner with startups and scaleups in their growth journey | Strong teams, built better.

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