A black man sitting on a wall

With World Happiness Day coming up on 20 March, it's a good time to look at what businesses are doing to pick up the cause of employee wellbeing and there are some surprising results.

Happiness is on the agenda

Some companies have a Chief Happiness Officer and books like James Timpson's ‘The Happy Index’ that advocate for creating work environments that prioritise joy.

Pets at work? Aromatherapy and massage? Pool tables? Wellness apps? There is no shortage of creative ideas to perk up those of us at work.

There are good reasons for promoting wellbeing as research continues to illuminate the golden link between happy workers and successful workplaces. Over half of UK employers now have a ‘formal wellbeing strategy’, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

But when it comes to promoting wellbeing, what really works?

Here is the surprising finding

Recent studies by William Fleming at the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford (April 2023) throws a curveball.

Dr. Fleming’s research compares interventions tried out within 143 different organisations in the UK with a combined total of 27,932 employees. A further study he has led expands this to 233 organisations with 46,336 workers.

The conclusion is that wellbeing interventions fail to improve mental wellbeing with one single, positive exception — which is where companies support their workforce around the option of volunteering:

For the following specific types of interventions, estimates indicate null effects on workers’ mental wellbeing: mindfulness, massage and relaxation classes, time management, coaching, financial wellbeing programmes, wellbeing apps, online coaching, sleep apps, and sleep events. Volunteering is the only type of intervention to suggest positive effects on workers’ wellbeing.

Other programmes the research looks at, including stress management and resilience, in fact have a negative effect on workers’ wellbeing.

So, it is the nature of people’s work of course that drives happiness or unhappiness. As Dr Fleming concludes:

organisations have to change the workplace and not just the worker.

The failure of individual wellbeing interventions is a dramatic finding that ought to turn the world of wellbeing at work on its head. But we are not yet seeing a stampede from wellness apps, games corners and what we might now characterise as ‘fluffy wellbeing’ into volunteering.  

What is in the way?

Dr Fleming’s research does point to the popularity of volunteering programmes:

volunteering also has the highest participation rate of all the programmes, suggesting a willingness from workers to engage.

In our experience, employers don’t make it easy for staff to volunteer, in fact quite the opposite.

How many firms make a play in public of their commitment to a number of volunteering days in the company, only to reveal when pressed that the actual number of days taken is far fewer?

In our own research with UK workers, Give Your Culture a Workout, we find that rather than leave it to them to do volunteering on their own, employees want their employers to take steps to help them. The obstacles that we see are those employees who say that they struggle to find time (69%) and over a third (38%) who say they needed guidance on how to do this.

These are two barriers that employers can lift, particularly if they see business benefits, in terms of staff development, in doing so. Of those currently involved in skilled volunteering, 79% believe that businesses themselves benefit from the practice.

Skills-based volunteering with charities is a wellbeing sweet spot. This is the form of volunteer input that charities most value, from expert trustees to pro bono participation such as through Pilotlight’s programmes.

As I reported in the context of the ‘Vision for Volunteering’ campaign, at a national level, skilled volunteering has increased by 20% since the start of the lockdown — while other forms of volunteering are in some decline.

What helps volunteering like this stand out, suggests Dr Fleming is that “it suggests an alternative win-win model of wellbeing that is more collective and relational.”

This is a profound point. As Sally Bailey, Chair of Pilotlight, says “helping others helps us to feel better ourselves.”

Building on the research base around wellbeing, it has been exciting to work with the team at Pro Bono Economics over the last year, to test the economic returns of our programmes engaging Pilotlighters and charities. Their findings from this excellent work is due to be published next month. 

And in June, there is The Big Help Out — a campaign to promote volunteering which is opening out to business take-up.

I don’t believe for a moment that we should be turning our back on happiness as a goal at work. Quite the opposite, it is good for all involved to do it well.

But surely the amateur hour for wellbeing is now over.

So, cut through the waste, cut out the fluff. Alongside the entrepreneurial ability to create good jobs, the UK needs a more rigorous focus on and investment in what works for wellbeing and for businesses where a happy workplace makes for a more competitive firm.

This starts with a call to the team here at Pilotlight and a look at the returns on skilled volunteering.

Written by
Profile picture for user Ed Mayo
Ed Mayo
Chief Executive - Pilotlight

Put happiness on your agenda

Employees who engage in pro bono volunteering bring the outside world into their roles and their employees, providing new perspectives, experiences, skills and expertise that could increase their productivity and capabilities.

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