What if work was a place to build our wellbeing?

It is workplaces, not us, that need to change, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw. A good workplace shouldn't be just one that avoids harming people, but instead a source of satisfaction, learning, relationship building, and even joy.

Time moves quickly in the circus that surrounds party politics. Surely, it was a year ago that Todd Muller rolled Simon Bridges, six months ago he resigned, and at least a few months since Judith Collins took over? So, since the reasons for Todd’s resignation are lost in the mists of last week, here is a refresher: Todd Muller resigned because of the huge stress of the work and in the workplace and the toll it took on his health and wellbeing.  

In response, many people, including the Prime Minister, mentioned the ‘difficult culture’ of politics. Everyone was pretty understanding of the impact on Muller.

Earlier, it had been revealed that Clare Curran had suffered significant trauma from the bullying she experienced at the hands of various MPs in parliament.

The culture of the parliamentary workplace is toxic for some parliamentary workers and public servants who, despite numerous investigations, continue to get treated poorly in an environment that doesn't seem to know how to properly hold MPs to account for their behaviour towards their staff.

It seems a pretty appalling workplace frankly, and most common sense discussions end with people agreeing something really should be done. And then someone suggests ‘resilience training’.

Nothing like suggesting people just need to be more resilient to a rubbish workplace, rather than actually doing something about the workplace. It is not only Parliament and the public service that has the problem.

Workplaces can create wellbeing, but to achieve it needs new ways of thinking

We live in a society in which people find it hard to recognise in any consistent way that there may be more than individual factors that contribute to mental unwellness. That the structures and systems in the places we work, live, play and learn are major determinants of mental wellbeing.

What seems even more difficult for people to imagine is that workplaces (both paid and unpaid ones), as a huge part of our lives, can actually be intentionally created to build mental wellbeing.

Workplaces could do more than just avoid harming people. They could, if we wanted to make them so, be places of satisfaction, learning, relationship building, joy even. In other words workplaces could help actively build people’s wellbeing in society.

I, along with my co-director Marianne Elliott, run a small consulting organisation. Like many small organisations we say yes to many things for many reasons. We were noticing that as we kept saying yes, people were struggling (I was struggling!). As one wonderful staff member said, “Today, I'm not swimming, I need a life jacket”. People were at risk of getting swept away. It was a culture we knew we didn't want, even though it is normalised in many institutions.

We have intentions for our organisation to be a place that cares for people, that people find joy in, where learning happens in relationships with others. However, these intentions need intentional practices and processes.

To build a workplace that supports people’s capabilities, and provide for their different needs, in other words to create a workplace that is a source of wellbeing (not just one that avoids harming people), needs a new way of thinking about work.

I have had to sidestep many of my existing mental models, supported by our society, about what work and employment is for and what it should look like.

So many things in my culture tell me work should be transactional, hierarchical, necessary and without trust, as opposed to uplifting, supportive, inclusive and created by shared decision-making.

Yet there is an existing heritage of thinking and work that is core to this reframing of collaborative and inclusive workplaces.

Just this week I listened to a discussion about sports leadership in New Zealand and rugby in particular. Action research from AUT showed that conceptualisations of leadership in Pacific cultures reflect very different understandings and practices than the eurocentric models of leadership that dominate in many sports organisations. The more collaborative approach to leadership and decision making taken in Pacific cultures, when allowed to flourish, will build more inclusive, thriving and developed sporting organisations.

Organisations that have many more Māori and Pacific people in positions of influence and organizations that reflect the makeup of the teams themselves. I see many parallels with political and policy making organisations.

Many organisations have been developing for some years processes and tools that embrace a diversity and depth of knowledge and practice about working together. For example, Enspiral’s Better Work Together book draws on many different ways of thinking about work from feminist and indigenous perspectives and social and environmental change movements. My co-workers also bring their own unique skills and knowledge to this work. These practical tools, the knowledge of many, has helped me move from thinking differently to doing differently.

There is risk and a vulnerability to this work. Open conversations about what people need and what is not working for people are encouraged, but you have to act on that too.

There is no way we are going to get it right all the time, stress, pressure, unexpected stuff ups create less than ideal responses in all people (including me).

We need processes in place to anticipate and deal with those in a good faith way that honours our intentions and recognise how power imbalances play out. Embracing different models of leadership and shared decision-making helps. Core values need to not just be decided on together but drive our processes. For example what do disciplinary processes that situate learning, development and manaaki over punishment look like? How do we ensure that accountability and responsibility are not undermined by a desire to maintain relationships?

We also needed different tools and resources to create a different workplace culture and structure. For people to work flexibly with their caregiving responsibilities, to support people’s emotional wellbeing, their learning aspirations, and to be a good Te Tiriti partner we need to have the policies and practices to do so, and be clear on what the financial resources needed are. We also need to think about our relationships with people who we do work differently: long term, and values driven.

It is not enough to mean well in a context of work, including employment laws, that creates little room for a different way of thinking about what work can be for. Often we are looking for new ideas and adapting as we go, standard performance plans won't cut it, we need something more expansive. It requires trust and transparency across the organisation and board, and a certain level of emotional competence and effort as we grapple with the unknown at times.

Reconceptualising work brings diversity of thought and experience

Creating workplaces that build the mental and spiritual health of people in that organisation (in the deepest and broadest meanings of those words) starts with reconceptualising what workplaces are for.

One of the benefits of refocusing in this way, no matter how slowly,  is the diversity of thought and skills that come into the organisation. People with a variety of life experiences, with different skills and competencies emerge. These skills also emerge from people already in a workplace.

We have also found unexpected and important relationships with other organisations have developed organically. It's a journey, creating workplaces and ultimately an economy that seek to actively build people’s health and wellbeing, as opposed to treating it as something that will hopefully flow from a “successful” organisation. There is complexity and there are hard conversations. But it is worth it.

Transforming workplaces is critical to our development as a society. Something for our politicians to ponder as our conversations about mental health and wellbeing become more frequent.

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