Wellbeing – from fad to a key business enabler

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Wellbeing is not a fad, it’s a key business driver. 

We can (grudgingly) thank two years of Covid for centring wellbeing as a truly critical element of workplace culture.

The theme of ‘wellbeing at work’ rates talent management as the most important people/HR issue in the UK, according to Great Place to Work

There has also been a shift in employees’ expectations lately, when asked the question ‘what is the best way for your organisation to support your personal wellbeing?’ folks ranked the following:

  1. Autonomy & Flexibility – work is what I do not where I go, allow me to work in a way that focused on outcomes, not presentism.
  2. People Management  – ie how I’m managed and led. Ensure that line management and points of authority lead me well, coach and enable me.
  3. Wellbeing Programmes – a broader consideration for the whole ‘me’, both in- and outside of work, help me help myself in times of distress.
  4. Work-Life Balance – prioritise work, and ensure there is an appropriate resource to get work done within work hours.
  5. Pay & Security – ensure reward and recognition in all forms is equitable and fair.

Well-being is multifaceted – just like we as people are: we all have differing, dynamic needs and concerns. An attractive and effective well-being strategy will integrate ways to boost Health, Wealth and Happiness.

Purpose-led organisations know that focussing on wellbeing leaches positively into the communities we serve rather than being solely a self-serving veneer. 

man shouting, have better conversations

Toxicity – the antithesis of Wellbeing 

I believe that culture is made up of the things we do, the actions we take and the tangible systems we operate. Culture is not done to us, it’s what we do to ourselves and others however unintentional.

I have observed time and again that a healthy culture can be built, managed and course-corrected. Great teams talk about what they do, what they don’t tolerate, what they expect of each other and (importantly) the values that mean folks will or won’t perpetuate what they hold dear.

So a little straight-talking. There is zero value in investing time and money in lunchtime stress buster sessions, office fruit bowls, office dogs or gym memberships if you have an underlying toxicity issue derailing your intended culture! Folks (a bit like the office dog) will sniff out a say-do gap quickly. Nothing is harder to shift in a team than baked-in cynicism.

A quick search on Google shows there’s no shortage of checklists or diagnostics of ‘a toxic workplace’. Here’s my take on what you might observe and what you won’t feel or see in a toxic vs healthy workplace. 

Caveat, workplaces, teams and their expectations differ – well established teams might have for example a higher tolerance of direct challenge, and regional norms will flavour what’s healthy and acceptable.


In a healthy workplace, communication begins with listening, everyone is encouraged to ask questions and listening is generous. Clear communication trumps the opaque, and rumour and gossip are less prevalent. Efforts are put into alignment, folks say what they mean and do what they say. Folks are encouraged and feel safe in disagreeing. 

In a more toxic workplace. communication is absent or passive (aggressive), lip service or silence is more common.. There may be danger in speaking up – silence is compliance and the overriding leadership style is ‘command and control’. People are unclear, different people hear different messages, drama and corridor conversations reign.


In a healthy workplace, leadership will be your greatest enabler. Leaders and line managers balance healthy concerns for results and relationships. They are trained and expected to primarily be coaches. Sufficient time is allocated to checking in with folks and effective developmental conversations, these need not be overly formal. Leaders generate and inspire trust.

In a toxic workplace, poor leadership is the reason why people become disengaged and leave.  poor leadership affects life beyond work. Many of us have had weekends and evenings ruined by unhealthy leadership behaviour or demands. 

The book ‘It’s the Manager’ state that the quality of managers is the single biggest factor in organisations’ long term success. Equally, Google’s now myth like 2 year Aristotle study stated that their best performing teams have one thing in common – leaders that create psychological safety. We all know this, so why do we tolerate poor leadership behaviour?


In a healthy workplace, challenges are given from a place of kindness, It’s timely, about the work and offers help to improve. Challenge is built into the system , ie retros, experimentation, critical thinking and feedback processes are taught during the onboarding.

In a more toxic workplace, challenge is personal, a grudge, people make assumptions (not factual), gossip and power play.  It’s more about point scoring than progress. 

Beware of false harmony though. In a workplace at risk to become toxic, challenge may not exist at all. Once your team go quiet and doesn’t speak up even when asked, you should be very worried.


In a healthy workplace, learning is a mindset – not an event. People and teams learn from mistakes and don’t fear telling the truth. People admit where improvement is needed and can show themselves somewhat vulnerable. Near misses are surfaced and learned from. Curiosity is expected and rewarded.

In toxic workplaces, learning is seen as a ‘shrinkage’, a task, a tickbox – as governance. Access to learning is seen as a reward or a privilege. Leaders are expected to have all the answers, collaboration effort is low. Group thinking can be hugely toxic, there is rarely just one bad apple. In a worst-case scenario, results are fudged, and mistakes may be hidden.

Reward & Recognition 

humans are by nature naturally collaborative and driven by equity (fairness). We often squash this by creating unhealthy competition (for resources, attention, reward), recognise people for effort as well as attainment – avoid rewarding a certain ‘ type ‘ ie those that shout the loudest.

Be careful with how you measure people, most measures can be gamed. We have all been in unhealthy reward systems, it’s exhausting and counterproductive. Toxic workplaces burn folks out trying to hit unhealthy measurements and metrics.


In a healthy workplace, standards are agreed, understood and mostly adhered to. There are (likely) fewer rather than more, they protect what’s dear and keep people safe. Folks can safely call out when the team fall short underpinned by practices that work for you (think red cord, stinky fish, retros, 360-degree feedback etc). You might well see peer effort to model values or uphold standards, for example, the full team taking part in selection and recruitment. Standards in healthy teams are upheld by all.

In a less healthy – more toxic workplace the ‘say-do gap‘ is the most effective killer of employee engagement. This is where a leader or line manager will ask or demand commitment to a behaviour whilst personally undermining it. 

Check in with your team and ask questions such as ‘when have you seen this in action? What do we ask of you/the team and not uphold?’. A tough mirror to hold up but who said leadership was easy?!

Most of us don’t hold ourselves to the high standards we expect of others and have quite convincing excuses/inbuilt bias as to why. A lack of standards can manifest itself in poor quality of work, poor behaviour, lack of completion, waste…

The idea behind this blog was to provide some examples to prove that wellbeing is not a fad, it’s, in fact, a key business driver. By making sure your workplace is healthy, you’ll unlock the potential that already exists in the business, and provide better results. It really is a win, win situation.

Want to read more?

Read Great Place to Work, the global authority on workplace culture 2022 Wellbeing Now report here. 

Sullivan & Stanley is recognised as one of the UK’s top 4 small businesses for Wellbeing – awarded by Great Place to Work.

Get in touch to hear more about how we work.

angie circle
Written by Angie Main
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