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17 Jun 2024
by Debi O'Donovan

REBA Inside Track: it’s time to toughen up – why wellbeing needs to change

Life can be tough, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean employers need to provide the answers to all your woes

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I’ve been thinking a lot about responsibility for health and wellbeing recently (spoiler alert, this is likely to come up strongly in REBA’s brand new Employee Wellbeing Research 2024 to be launched at the REBA Wellbeing Congress on 20 June, together with AXA Health).

Leading employers have done an amazing job of focusing on wellbeing across broader cohorts of the workforce. That needs to be applauded. But I dare to ask those good practice employers out there: have we gone too far now?

At an off-the-record employer discussion recently, one senior human resources (HR) practitioner shared how three-quarters of her company’s graduate intake had reported mental health issues. Others around the table nodded. The numbers differed but the shift was common across all sectors.

Practice and self-discipline

My first worry is for those employees who really do have clinical level mental health issues, who would benefit hugely from being in work where they are supported by their employer with reasonable adjustments. They are being drowned out by the much bigger group who are simply experiencing the rough and tumble of life, and essentially need to learn, adapt and build resilience. 

Sorry to sound like an old [insert word of your choice here], but life isn’t always all joy and happiness. There is a lot of falling down, tripping over and stumbling, where you have to dust yourself down, learn and carry on. Your first few decades on this planet involve a lot of that and no one can do the tough bits for you. Like physical wellbeing – where only individuals can make the changes to eat healthier and do more exercise – mental and social wellbeing come with practice and self-discipline. 

We can see that the NHS is creaking, which will only get worse with an ageing population. Expecting this incredible national health institution to fix every disease and injury (both physical and mental) is a tall ask. So there will need to be more leaning on individuals to take increasing responsibility for their own health, wellbeing and medical journeys.

Our health needs have changed

Personally, I’d like to see a true government leader (regardless of which political party wins the next election) to be brave and visionary enough to rethink what the UK needs for the next 100 years of health and care. We’ve done well for nearly 80 years but our needs and attitudes have changed. Currently, I’m not holding my breath on this.

For now, the buck largely sits with employers, and it is increasingly hitting them in their profits. Below par productivity won’t be fixed by increasing numbers of so-called unwell. But it will be improved with good support for the relative minority that truly need it. For everyone else – good (not toxic) work is good for you. Having friends and a community via work is good for your mental health and wellbeing. Earning your own money and understanding it doesn’t come as a handout from mum, dad or the state is an invaluable life lesson and gives a powerful sense of purpose.

My message to employers: Be ready to properly support those with chronic or clinical conditions at work. For the rest: it is time to toughen up.

REBA Wellbeing Congress 2024: join myself and hundreds of others on 20 June 2024 to debate, agree or disagree on the future direction of health and wellbeing in the workplace.