Wellbeing: let’s all just have a nice massage?

At a recent ULR (Union Learning Representative) network event organised by the TUC and led by Hugh Robertston, TUC H&S Lead, Hugh said: “Wellbeing is the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. The government now measure it, saying: ‘The aim is to provide a fuller picture of how society is doing by supplementing existing economic, social and environmental measures.’”

The NHS website lets you measure your own: http://www.nhs.uk/tools/documents/self_assessments_js/assessment.html?XMLpath=/tools/documents/self_assssments_js/packages/&ASid=43&syndicate=undefined

You wouldn’t perhaps associate jaffa-cake-style biscuits with wellbeing, but Hugh’s presentation showed us images of these and many other surprising items marketed with a ‘wellbeing’ tag. Wellbeing seems to be a US-inspired word, as much about selling as it is about anything else.

Wellbeing is growing in popularity amongst employers in the UK. Sometimes it comes up via general programmes around health checks, stopping smoking, and exercise, but most often related to stress and stress management. Stress management is probably familiar as a workplace concept and many people involved with unions know the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) have a set of Stress Management Standards which employers and unions can use to work together on stress reduction in the workplace. http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/

It promotes the standard HSE approach of consultation and worker involvement, to come up with stress reduction plans and policies that should make a difference in the workplace – if they are implemented, followed, and reviewed when things change. It’s not the most exciting part of the HSE website but it’s useful. HSE requirements are often mandatory (backed up by legislation that can be relied on in courts or tribunals).

Hugh’s workshop pointed out that what is tending to happen more and more is that the topic of wellbeing is being taken up by employers. In the US, companies spend $6 billion a year on wellness/wellbeing programmes.

To some extent this is a good thing, if the changes that come about are meaningful in improving the quality of life in the workplace. If you’ve not experienced a workplace where this sort of thing is on offer, it can seem quite caring and beneficial, and to some extent, it is. It can be popular with staff, although there are downsides, such as making staff feel worried or pressurised.

Lose weight, exercising more: we know we should, but sometimes this can be difficult when juggling long hours/long work journeys, domestic and caring responsibilities, external studies … If it starts to seem that a job or promotion is on the line unless there is participation in the wellbeing activities, it can be just another pressure.

From a union perspective, the concern is that wellbeing carries none of the consultative requirement implicit in the legal arrangements for health & safety, which are about prevention. The best way of improving wellbeing in the workplace is by changing how work is organised: proper staffing, adequate pay, well-maintained workplaces; good training and so on.

Wellbeing is an add-on, and whilst a workplace massage may be welcome, the concept can be used as a way of cutting out unions, sometimes under the auspices of doing away with all those tiresome regulations, red tape, meetings, emails and assessment forms.

Hugh’s workshop ended by suggesting that unions “can run their own well-being campaigns, but should ensure they are linking them with prevention, and also recruitment.”

Margaret Pearce
Napo Administrator (Health and Safety)

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