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HRM: Contributing to Well-being or Ill-being at Work?

If you were to take the people out of an organisation you would be left with some stock and machinery that would be of little value, and possibly some property. It is the people that make an organisation function, so having the people functioning to the best of their ability must surely be best for an organisation. Yet much of what is undertaken in the field of HRM actually serves to detract from people functioning at their best. Evidence from studies of wellbeing in the workplace reveal some interesting findings that raise questions as to whether the current focus of HRM will adapt to the evolving future workplace, or whether it will need to be redrawn along different lines, focussing on maintaining wellbeing above all else in the workplace to enable people to be successful for their organisations.

Much of the literature on wellbeing focuses on work-life balance (WLB) as potentially the most important element that affects people and their behaviour at work. Hence it is the most high profile and most highly legislated area in consideration. However, the evidence in this area is mixed and far from conclusive.

While a measure of organisational health is being heralded by the likes of Henderson Fund Management to allow investors to make more informed decisions about the companies they are investing in, quite how this will be calculated, or what its value will be are yet to be determined. City analysts already take a keen interest in voluntary staff turnover rates, especially in service/consulting businesses where valuation is contingent on the ability of a business to scale quickly and in high growth periods. They see voluntary turnover as a good but crude indicator of employee satisfaction and engagement. They also look to indices such as Gallup Q12 scores that measure engagement. Other measures are emerging in the marketplace. Vielife, for example, has a range of organisational health audits both at the whole organisation and individual employee level, and aim to develop the standardised metric for the measurement of employee wellbeing. Ironically they find that a health and wellbeing index is higher on the agenda of the financial and managing directors' than it is for the HR director.

The current UK Labour Government is also on the health and wellbeing bandwagon with its current white paper 'Choosing Health' devoting a whole chapter to workplace health and wellbeing. They claim that stress-related conditions and musculoskeletal disorders are now the commonest reported causes of work-related sickness absence, and that 3.74 million workers clock up more than the 48 hour limit under the Working Time Directive, which is 423,000 more than in 1992 when there was no long hours protection.

Work in this area by the CIPD and The Tomorrow Project has identified what appear to be four key characteristics that contribute to an individual's wellbeing: autonomy, relationships, the physical environment and the individual's disposition. This remodels HRM away from the traditional relations, resourcing, development and reward model which is functional and outcome based, to one where the individual becomes the central concern. Does the individual have the appropriate level of autonomy to allow them to function best? Are the significant relationships in their work enhancing rather than detracting from their performance? Is the physical environment contributing to their productivity, or is it making them sick? How can the work environment be managed to ensure that it is a positive experience for people, contributing to a positive rather than negative disposition? Arguably any activity which does not contribute to any of these four is not contributing to the success of the individual, and hence the success of the organisation, and the organisation should therefore question abandoning them. If you were to ask these questions with regard to the policies and practices that HRM currently employs, it would be interesting to see how many passed the test and remained.

Dr Eddie Blass is a freelance academic and ghostwriter specialising in business and management, education, law and futures studies.

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