In this guest blog, Dave Eva, National Union Learning Fund Manager for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reprises a talk he gave at a recent ETI Ethical Insights Briefing. He explains why wellbeing is a good thing for both workers and employers. And he contends that traditional union rights, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, should be viewed as key components of wellbeing at work.
Unions have rightly been suspicious of wellbeing approaches (often very glossy and well presented by youthful, sporty people) that purport to improve worker wellbeing by exhorting them to eat better, exercise more and quit smoking and/or drinking.
Many employers have engaged in worthy programmes that help people with free fruit, gym membership or buying bikes. But these do not really get to the core of wellbeing and appear to unions to be tokens/sops at best and passing the buck for wellbeing to the employees at worst.
However, the evidence on wellbeing as a concept is irrefutable.
It’s good for employees because feeling good improves your general health and (probably) means you are more likely to exercise, eat well and take care of yourself and live a longer, better life.
For employers the evidence is that happy employees are higher performing and that happy workplaces have less downtime through absence, grievances and other conflicts.
So what can help employers create happy workplaces if the "healthy living" approach doesn’t work?
Real wellbeing at work comes through fairness, engagement and empowerment
The factors that create wellbeing at work are now much better understood.
Research shows that while the mainly lifestyle activity based programmes flogged by so many "wellbeing consultants" may have some marginal impact on a few willing souls, REAL wellbeing at work comes through fairness, engagement and empowerment.
That means having a voice and being able to connect with others.
This is music to union ears since this is exactly the type of workplaces unions are about creating.
In both a national and international context this means that worker rights to free association, representation and collective bargaining are essential underpinnings to creating healthy workplaces.
And involvement in decisions, cooperation and engagement in planning work, are also important in enabling wellbeing.
Learning is a key part of the wellbeing process
Learning is a key part of this process (as well as one of the personal "Five Ways to Wellbeing" recommended by the NHS).
This is not just learning that helps people to understand their rights and develop their skills to represent themselves and others (important though this and well trained union representatives are) but learning that gives people the skills and confidence to understand the world better, do things that interest them and take more control of their lives.
This might be improving basic skills like numeracy, literacy and digital skills.
It might also be helping people acquire work related or transferable skills that assist them in opening up life opportunities – or to follow an interest that gives them satisfaction and pleasure.
The TUC’s learning and skills team reaches 200,000 people a year
Unionlearn (the TUC Learning and Skills team) assists affiliated unions to reach over 200,000 people each year to help them gain new skills.
A high proportion of these have no qualifications and a poor previous experience of learning. They return through their union because it is a safe and trusted route that fits the learning to the worker.
In the last evaluation of the programme 82 per cent of those surveyed said their confidence in their abilities had increased through learning and 55 per cent that their quality of life had improved – so it was good for them!
Furthermore, 62 per cent said they could do their current job better – so it was also good for their employer!!
Workplace Union Learning Representatives play a key role in this work. Without them engaging non-learners and supporting and empowering people, learning wouldn’t happen to anywhere near the levels needed to impact significantly.
Wellbeing creates more productive and innovative workplaces
My message is that all the evidence shows that wellbeing creates more productive and innovative workplaces, not vice versa.
We need such workplaces to help create a more prosperous economy.
But the sticking plaster of "healthy living" will not sort the problems. Instead, employee engagement and supporting learning at work are the key levers in tackling both health and economic weaknesses through the workplace.
And unions are key players in making this happen because they operate within enterprises.
They represent 6.5 million workers in England and have the structures and systems to work with employers and across employers to deliver the change in attitude and approach we need.
Work with us to make this happen.