Why Wellbeing Programs Fail

Despite your best intentions and efforts are your wellbeing programs falling short of the long-term outcomes you hoped to achieve?  With global spending reported to be now over forty billion dollars a year on programs targeting the physical, mental and social wellbeing in workplaces, it’s heart-breaking to realize that generally employee’s unhappiness and stress levels at work continue to rise.  So what might your wellbeing program be missing?

“Creating changes that work is a constant challenge—how to do it, how to sustain it, and how not to lose people along the way,” explained Dr. Paige Williams from Melbourne University, and a positive change solutionary who uses the science of wellbeing to create sustainable positive change with individuals, teams, and organizations when I interviewed her recently. “If you want to achieve successful and sustainable wellbeing changes it’s critical to focus your efforts not only on individuals but also on the systems that they are working in.”

Paige has found that while improving your wellbeing involves creating changes within yourself – your attitudes, mindsets, feelings, and behaviors —you also need to consider the external factors that may be influencing your experiences of work.  These can be things such as the organizational culture, work climate, job characteristics, your managers, colleagues, and the physical work environment.

Paige and her colleagues have developed the Inside-Out-Outside-In Model for improving workplace wellbeing that maps the dynamic interplay between these inside and outside factors. And when you join both these factors together they can have a powerful synergistic effect on each other.   For example, you might use a training program or coaching as a launching pad to introduce positive attitudes and behaviors (inside-out), and reinforce these with positive leadership practices (outside-in) factors to embed them in your day-to-day workplace environment.

“While you can build your own capacity to make positive changes within yourself – the inside-out approach,” said Paige, “You also need outside-in approaches that will sustain and embed them in what’s happening around you.”  By focusing on both inside and outside factors they have found that workplaces can create a positive cycle of change leads to higher levels of employee wellbeing.

How can you apply the inside-out and outside-in framework to create sustainable change?

Paige suggests three practices for applying the inside-out outside-in framework to improve workplace wellbeing:

  • Inside-Out Strategies – the cultivation of Psychological Capital – hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism – has been found to improve performance and help people to flourish. Find out more in this interview with Jo Murray about how you can build psychological capital by understanding what you and your people uniquely bring to your roles and your organization to give it life and vitality, and your potential to perform at extraordinary levels.  Paige has also found that these attitudes can been successfully shared through two-hour interventions comprised of a series of targeted exercises and integrative reflective activities and through workplace triggers such as making the provision of negative feedback a more positive experience for the leader who gets to practice optimism (that they can create change) and efficacy (for their communication skills) and the employee who gets to practice their resilience (as they navigate failure) and hope (for how they can improve upon their current performance).
  • Outside-In Strategies – organizational culture has been found to have a critical influence on employee wellbeing. Studies suggest that a constructive culture is best espoused by a virtuous culture in which there is: organizational forgiveness through which mistakes are quickly forgiven and used as opportunities for learning; organizational trust, in the courtesy, consideration and respect enacted in the organization and the mutual trust between peers and leaders; organizational integrity, demonstrated by the honesty, trustworthiness and honor that pervade the organization; organizational optimism, in the belief of organizational members that they will succeed in doing well even in the face of challenges; and organizational compassion, through the common acts of compassion and concern that show that people care about each other. Here’s what Kim Cameron suggests about how to more virtuous cultures in organization.
  • Connecting Inside-Out and Outside-In Factors – as more employees start to enact their Inside-Out strategies and behave in ways that are more positive for themselves and others they more likely to contribute to the creation of a positive organizational culture, to notice the presence of organizational virtues and to make more positive evaluations of their work happiness. Thus creating and sustaining an upward spiral of positive change.  It is important to be aware however, that studies are also finding the level of impact and the duration of work happiness following training has been found to vary depending on people’s baseline (i.e. employees with higher levels of psychological capital benefit less from training than those with lower levels) and the organizational support for consistently enacting and valuing these behaviors. These factors can impact the momentum and direction of the change spiral when it comes to people’s levels of work happiness.

How can you leverage an inside-out and outside in framework to create sustainable change in your organization?

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