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The Role of Well-Being in Unlocking a Sustainable, High-Performance Culture

The well-being space has always interested me. I remember back in 2004 when I did my first ultramarathon, I convinced my then employer, Hudson, to sponsor my participation in the race and in doing so profiled “work-life balance”. It created followership and interest not only in the event but also in everyone rallying around a “healthy” cause. Whilst I was the lucky recipient, and even luckier as they went on to sponsor all four races I did of the series (the hottest, coldest, driest, and windiest deserts of the 1000km Racing the Planet 4 Deserts series), I saw first-hand back then the potential drop in the ocean around mixing well-being with corporate culture. In fact, the last article I published in this newsletter was how these races also inspired me to set up ChapmanCG as a remote company. 

Exactly what well-being is and its impact remains allusive for many. Whilst we generally know it’s important, we may find it difficult to measure. My hypothesis for this piece, much like the article in Forbes that was published in July 2020, on the Rise of the Chief Well-Being Officer, is that there is a rising trend on well-being being taken seriously. However, is this translating into more roles in this space and exactly where are these roles sitting within the organisation structure?

From my research and conversations, it would appear that well-being roles are positioned generally as: 

  • Sitting within the HR team, often under rewards/benefits from a programme management perspective or interlinked with talent roles or even within diversity roles; in some larger teams, a specialist will sit under the HR leader, lateral with other specialist roles. 
  • Sitting outside the HR team, often in another part of the organisation under a “sponsor” of the business who has a particular passion for well-being.
  • Outside of organisations through a variety of providers where HR or business leaders consult experts on well-being related issues or design programmes. 

Theoretically, could we see more of what the Forbes article describes as the Rise of the Chief Well-Being Officer reporting to the President or CEO? I believe so and I think the time is ripe for this to happen, given the last two years of transformation and what lies ahead for corporate, in terms of mental health issues. 

There are many definitions of well-being but the one I choose to stick to is “sustained happiness”. In order to bring this about, one has to take a holistic life view of an employee’s dimensions outside their career or performance. Well-being focuses more on unlocking focus and removing obstacles, by taking a broader picture of what makes people happy. This is where the ambiguity sets in as, to some critics, well-being has no limits and can be difficult to cast a net around. We also run into the problem of is it a reactive problem (we measure well-being when a problem develops) or a proactive exercise (we plan better well-being programmes before problems exist) or a mixture of both. A deeper question is how individual we go versus more general with well-being programmes and that can certainly be a rabbit hole. 

What is My Solution? 

If I was to dream up the perfect solution it would indeed be a Chief Well-Being Officer type role exists in progressive organisations. It would sit under the CEO and lateral with the CHRO. This role is staffed by a unique person who is: 

  • Well regarded by the organisation as an all-rounder and is also seen as very creative with their ideas. 
  • Ideally, this individual is renowned for being empathetic, interested in health and is well connected throughout the organisation, on the basis of their past roles. 
  • The role needs a well-being list of priorities being built out and this takes consultation with many stakeholders across the business and especially HR. 
  • You need to be really plugged into the direction of the company from a CEO and leadership perspective, but also be wired into the grassroots perspectives of what the companies issues are.
  • In a perfect world, you are able to develop well-being plans that sit along with career plans and have a meaningful impact at a team or individual level. 
  • Clearly, this role needs to be connected with external experts on well-being related themes and at the same offers potential to build the company brand by creating the right image inside and outside of what the company stands for. 
  • … and the list goes on. 

As we see, this is not an easy role and has a lot of quicksand to navigate around its success. Which is where the problem starts to set it. “It’s all a bit hard”. 

However, I don’t think it’s impossible and I would go further to say the ideal Chief Well-Being Officer role also incorporates or touched the Talent portfolio. And this can get complicated as Talent often sits under the CHRO. So maybe it needs to be shared or dotted line. I see a similar ambiguity with talent as well-being, but for the purposes of amalgamating insights that are beyond “day to day issues” (which I define sit with HR and indeed most business roles). I think this could sit outside HR. 

So we end up perhaps with a unicorn hire in the Chief Well-Being Officer role who maybe “was” a CHRO or who passed through the HR structure, and then did some influential business roles (which connected them with the C-Suite), and at the same time is confident at brand building and, finally, can avoid the trap of the role ending up as ambiguous (therefore they need to be good at defining how it is measured). 

Why Is This Important?

I see well-being as the most important area we need to concentrate on as leaders and individuals, going forward. I think the remote and hybrid cultures emerging and indeed for many seen to possibly be the answer of a more enjoyable way to work, test our ability as managers or employees to balance our work with our lives. The growing blur of technology and how it enhances how we get work done requires better habits to be sustainable for home life. However, the greatest issue really is our “crisis of our purpose” which has arisen as a result of Covid times—we realise we are all mortal and want to use our time well! Therefore, employees will vote with their feet if they don’t feel their well-being is being listened to. High performance, as we know, is unlocked by people feeling sustained happiness. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think it’s starting and amplifying the conversation around well-being. Some see it as “woo-woo”. That’s ok. We connect with the minds who see positivity and potential around the topic. And we amalgamate this energy to get somewhere rather than accepting the status quo. I am not suggesting we need to necessarily go all the way to having Chief Well-Being Officer roles. However, I feel we must take this specialisation more seriously. And we should approach it very much from a “how do I feel” perspective for employees. Employee feedback surveys and exit interviews are of course a good start, but they are too late in my view and create a firehose of issues to examine. I think it starts earlier up the food chain of how the company is functioning. And it stands a better chance if it’s driven from the topic. 

What Could the Future Look Like? 

I imagine we will put more emphasis on leadership teams at the top needing to demonstrate their well-being indicators. I think the “ESG” space is heading in this direction. This is great and if we can make the well-being progress “real”, we are getting somewhere. Again, we need to remain positive and patient, but again the conundrum comes in on how we measure wellbeing enhancement. I think this is an exercise of trial and error and constant reflection. But let’s go there more. 

Why Does Well-Being Interest Me?

I talked at the start of this article that I have always been interested in well-being. As I helped build ChapmanCG and other of my companies and investments, I always liked to look at people’s broader lives. Unlocking high performance on a longer-term basis, I noticed, required alignment between corporate and life goals. More often than not, a serious eye into people’s lives only came at moments of crisis (e.g., a burnout or a Covid case in the family). Via formal and informal communication loops, I saw that it was paramount we do our best to connect into the overall picture of what is going with our employees. 

And then it hit me. My own well-being or what I described as my sustained happiness, took a hit. I can’t exactly say what happened. My life should be and is amazing. But the pressure of years of multi-tasking and stress took its toll. I experienced burnout. And I had to rely on all of the great relationships and energy surrounding me, to give myself a break and recover. That’s still happening, and I am grateful for the experience, to make me get a better perspective on this issue. Perhaps it’s a gift for the future. As now my purpose has been defined: I want to help corporate culture get “weller” and champion smarter global wellbeing practices. This takes a positive mindset that what we are doing is our best and the belief that we can do much better. Let’s keep the conversation and solutioning progressive and optimistic. 

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