A radically changed role for HR requires Executive Leaders to put human needs at the heart of business 

The future of HR elevates the employee experience to the top of the agenda, recognises employee wellbeing and flexibility as key business strategies, and in doing so holds the power to increased business competitiveness going into the future. 

How HR evolved

True functional experts in recruitment; policy and process; compliance; performance and employee relations, HR leadership has significantly evolved since the days of ‘personnel’. 

Added to this, the global pandemic combined with the emerging future of a new hybrid working model that requires both a whole new infrastructure and employee experience, sees HR stepping into an even greater strategic role to support organisations moving forward. 

As new ways of working have yet to solidify as solid structures, HR and leadership teams are responding to the back lash of what the global pandemic has created. 

Never was there a better time to sit and reflect on what really matters when you are locked in your home with nowhere to go and no one to see.  The head space that is often lacking in today’s modern world saw people bringing into question what they valued and what they wanted from their employers. 

This was further compounded by the relationship people had with their employer during the height of the pandemic. The 2020 future of work and digital wellbeing report by The Economist highlighted that increased connectivity meant employees could be contacted more frequently in a range of different ways. While this was seen be a plus for communication, over half interviewed indicated struggling to switch off from work, leading to a rise in mental health issues. 

Managing teams of people in a remote environment was one of the biggest factors leaders found themselves faced with during lockdown.  And with the new hybrid working model, continuing to face, calling for a new set of leadership skills.  

Almost half of respondents in the EIU survey said they still struggle with aspects of their jobs involving engaging with others online. These included difficultly coordinating multiple people’s inputs (48%), reading personal cues (38%) and building rapport (32%).   

This new set of leadership skills comes with it a new mindset and way of communicating and without this evolution in leadership, will risk the effectiveness, productivity, and engagement of teams in this new world. 

This potent combination has brought with it changes to the psychological contract. The psychological contract is the unwritten expectations always operating between an employee and an organisation.   

nstead of more traditional terms and conditions such as salary and promotional prospects influencing the psychological contract, people are using an organisation’s purpose, the way they treat their people, kindness, and sustainability as key criteria to evaluate ‘do I stay, or do I go?’. 

Evidence of this is being witnessed in the ‘great resignation’.  Having spent the last 18 months living in a place of uncertainty and survival, people were not in a position to make rational and informed decisions about their future career and life purpose. 

Fast forward to now and people’s confidence to follow through on the decisions they made about their life, purpose and place of work has risen.  Many describe how the ‘foot on the gas’ way of working is not sustainable and burnt out and fatigued resignation letters are landing in email inboxes around the globe. 

Ultimately dissatisfaction does to relationships what rust does to cars. 

People will forget what you said, will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

In a recent white paper on The Future of Work, January 2022, 63% of 1,042 respondents globally reported being unhappy in their work.  And 55% indicating their mental health was ‘low’ or ‘so-so’. 

Alarming figures such as these call for radical action in the form of a well thought out comprehensive wellbeing strategy.  

The future of wellbeing in the workplace  

Rewind 10 years and wellbeing in the workplace was likely to extend to subsidised gym membership, a travel to work scheme and possibly some free fruit. 

In the year ahead, as working from home becomes more common and our lives grow more interconnected than ever, there will be even greater focus upon mental health alongside physical health and wellbeing

Sir Richard Branson. 

Wellbeing in the workplace is now on the strategic agenda of any savvy leadership team meeting.   

After being treated as a “benefit” or a part of the company’s EAP program for years, corporate wellbeing has now become a business strategy. CEOs and business leaders at all levels now recognize that if people are not productive, energetic, rested, and safe they simply will not perform

Josh Bersin, Global Industry Analyst  

Burnout and fatigue are two key crisis areas HR and leadership are having to address.  In 2019, the World Health Organization recognised workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” It was the first time the global health agency directly linked burnout in its classifications of diseases as a work hazard.  

The impact of burnout has been observed when Nike closed offices for a week in August 2021 to give employees a ‘mental health break’. And the dating App, Bumble, closed offices in June 2021 to give ‘burnt out’ staff a week’s break. 

The last two years have undoubtedly seen a rise in organisations investing in wellbeing, however wellbeing is a new arena for both HR and leadership.  Getting under the skin of what people need requires a working knowledge of the mind and body.  With this knowledge a strategy can be developed which meets both the needs of people at a mental, emotional and physical level, and also creates the desired impact on the organisation. 

The world of wellbeing is vast and without specialist skill and knowledge in the form of a wellbeing consultant, leaders run the risk of delivering initiatives which fall short of the mark.  Mental health alone covers everything from stress and burnout to addiction, depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, and suicide.  Not to mention multiple personality disorder, self-harming and eating disorders. 

Not every organisation will require a wellbeing strategy that addresses all aspects of the spectrum when it comes to health.  HR can play a vital role in reviewing the analytical data to highlight what the key priorities are.  Data such as HR stats, exit interview feedback and employee engagement feedback for example can help to shape and form a wellbeing strategy. 

This data also plays a crucial role in enabling the business to measure the effectiveness of different initiatives and interventions.  For example, investing in management mental health awareness training is on most organisations’ agendas, however measurement of the effectiveness of the training is as important as the training delivery itself. 

Leaders leading the way in creating a wellbeing culture 

Closing offices for a week to give burnt out staff a break is neither strategic nor commercial. The leading edge of employee wellbeing is emerging as the creation of a prevention over cure approach, and this is where leadership have a key role to play in reviewing organisational culture. 

All the same, this does not involve telling staff to “stop playing the victim card” and “moaning” about working conditions, which is what Bill Michael, Chairman of KPMG did on a virtual town hall in January 2021.  Michael resigned a few days later. 

In toxic cultures, being a workaholic is normalized and sacrificing sleep is glorified. The best way to get ahead is to burnout.  In healthy cultures, quality of life is expected and having a life is celebrated. You’re encouraged to put your wellbeing above your work

Adam Grant

Leaders are cited as wanting a culture of high performance, yet some have not fully grasped the link between high performance and wellbeing.  Leaders like Michael need to recognise that people don’t show up for work as a job title, they show up as a human being.  

The old school model of high performance was performance = capacity + knowledge.  People had a capacity for sales, a capacity for playing tennis, a capacity for accounting and so on.  The model indicated that by taking capacity for the subject area and adding knowledge, equalled performing at a higher level.  

Timothy Gallway later came along and gave us a new insight into high performance.  Gallway created a formula that performance = capacity – interference.  In other words, to perform at a high level there is no interference in the system in the form of environmental factors and internal factors – mainly the mind. 

Given that the unconscious mind controls around 95% of the way people think, behave and emotionally respond to situations, it’s easy to see that a persons’ state of mind has a lot to do with high performance – and wellbeing, creating an even stronger business case to invest in a comprehensive wellbeing strategy. 

A new type of leader

The new psychological contract for employees calls for leaders in the C-suite to listen, empathise and be willing to show their own vulnerability.  

Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways

Daniel Goleman

Now, more than ever sees the need to build and grow these skills among leaders for the future survival of an organisation.  Leaders’ ability to manage remote teams and to empathise and connect with their people has to be one of the key pillars of an organisation’s wellbeing strategy.  

Especially right now, when we’re so anxious and there’s so much vulnerability and uncertainty, we need to do more than diversity and equity and inclusion. We need to create real belonging in our culture. B

Brene Brown

While the role of HR has changed, it’s evident that wellbeing is no longer viewed as an HR issue. There is a recognition that it is a key driver of business success, and as such C-suite leaders and CEOs play a key role in crafting the wellbeing strategy, role modelling it and finally ensuring accountability for it.  

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