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The 5 pillars of wellbeing at work

Use them to make an employee wellbeing strategy for your company

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What are the NHS 5 pillars of wellbeing? Employee wellbeing: definition and reasons to careWhat is an employee wellbeing strategy?The 5 pillars of employee wellbeing

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  • The NHS 5 pillars of wellbeing are connect with others, be active, learn new skills, pay attention to the present moment, and give to others.
  • Employee wellbeing is defined as being happy and healthy at work, and is closely linked to performance.
  • Happy workers are 13% more productive, highlighting the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace.
  • An employee wellbeing strategy is a specific plan for making sure your people feel healthy and happy at work.

What are the NHS 5 pillars of wellbeing? 

The 5 pillars of wellbeing, also known as the 5 steps to mental wellbeing or 5 ways to wellbeing, are a series of evidence-based actions  shown to help people improve how they feel.

Although the 5 pillars are widely used by the NHS, and hence known as the NHS pillars of wellbeing, they were actually first created by the New Economics Foundation, a think tank, in a 2011 report on the evidence base behind wellbeing actions

The NHS 5 pillars of wellbeing are:

  1. Connect with other people (social wellbeing)
  2. Be active (physical wellbeing)
  3. Learn new skills (developmental wellbeing)
  4. Pay attention to the present moment (psychological wellbeing)
  5. Give to others (emotional wellbeing)

These pillars act as a great framework for anyone looking to increase their emotional stability and resilience, reduce stress, or feel like they’re getting the most out of life. However, in this piece we’ll be looking at how employers can flex these pillars in order to make them specifically relevant for wellbeing at work.

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Employee wellbeing: definition and why it’s important for employers

Employee wellbeing is defined as feeling healthy and happy at work. 

Unsurprisingly, feeling well at work is closely linked to performance: Oxford University found that happy workers are 13% more productive on average. On the flip side, concentration, productivity and retention all suffer if people don’t feel well enough to engage in the work they’re doing day-to-day. They might need to take time off work, and if they do turn up, they’ll likely seem distracted, tired, irritable or just less interested in their job. Here are a few statistics that show the scale of the problem: 

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What is an employee wellbeing strategy? (And why is it worth having one?)

An employee wellbeing strategy is a considered and specific plan for making sure that your people feel healthy and happy at work.

There are three steps to an employee wellbeing strategy:

  1. See where you’re at now by conducting an employee wellbeing survey and sifting through the results
  2. Make a specific plan by using our employee wellbeing strategy template with the 5 pillars of employee wellbeing
  3. Measure your progress by doing another survey in 3 or 6 months’ time, and then adjust and repeat as necessary

The risk of not having an employee wellbeing strategy is too high

Not paying concerted attention to your team’s wellbeing could put them at risk of poor mental health or burnout. “Languishing” is a term for everybody who isn’t experiencing acute mental health issues, but who also isn’t exactly thriving, either. They might feel like they aren’t functioning very well, but they’re not sure why. And it’s a bit of a vicious cycle. If they’re languishing, their minds are using up energy trying to get back on an even keel. That means there’s less processing power available to focus on usual tasks or to reach a deep ‘flow state’ of productive work — and so it becomes a slippery slope, making it much easier to snowball towards a more serious state of poor mental health. 

And languishing people make up a massive 55% of your workforce at any time. It’s the exact reason we believe in the little and often approach to wellbeing – there’s really no reason to wait for people to reach breaking point.

The 5 pillars of employee wellbeing

We’ve drawn on our knowledge of workplace wellbeing and mental health — Spill has over 100 qualified therapists — to turn the NHS pillars of general wellbeing into more specific pillars focused on wellbeing at work in particular.

These are still focused around the same core pillars of wellbeing (social, physical, developmental, emotional, and psychological), but here we focus on what you can do as an employer to bake these into your company culture.

Spill’s 5 pillars of employee wellbeing, adapted from the NHS pillars, are as follows:

  1. Give people safety (social wellbeing)
  2. Give people space (physical wellbeing)
  3. Give people goals (developmental wellbeing)
  4. Give people autonomy (psychological wellbeing)
  5. Give people support (emotional wellbeing)

Let's go through each pillar in more detail, looking not only at what it means — but, more importantly, ideas for what you can do to improve it at your company.

1. Give people safety (social wellbeing) 

As well as big, pragmatic factors like sick pay, progression frameworks and regular contracted hours to offer more job security and financial predictability, employers should be looking to nurture a sense of psychological safety in every workplace. 

Psychological safety means removing fear in any form from your day-to-day working culture. Fear of conflict; fear of taking risks; fear of speaking up; fear of rejection; fear of retribution. All of these make for a pretty miserable experience at work. If you can eliminate fear from your company culture, you’re likely to see employee wellbeing, job satisfaction, innovation and productivity all soar in response. 

Leaders and managers in your business need to model ‘safe interpersonal risk-taking’ in order for employees to feel like they can do it, too. That means making sure everybody feels comfortable enough to call out mistakes, suggest a silly idea, give feedback or ask for help. 

Quick wins for creating psychological safety at work:

  • Define a way for people to report concerns (make sure there’s an anonymous way, too).
  • Start saying “I don’t know” more often, and encourage all senior team members to do the same. This demonstrates openness and fights any culture of perfectionism.
  • Encourage cross-team connection by putting a buddy system in place for newbies, assigning personal mentors, organising informal socials and pairing on difficult tasks. 
  • Be open about mistakes and missteps. Urge teams and individuals to talk about what you tried, what you learned and what you might do differently next time. 


2. Give people space (physical wellbeing)

The rise in connected technologies means that modern workers feel like they need to be contactable at any time of day. In fact, 60% of tech workers told us they felt pressure to respond to work messages out of hours. As more of us have started to work flexible hours from home, the boundary between our lives and our livelihoods has blurred even further. 

Answering calls and emails outside of work hours simply wasn’t an expectation before, and it isn’t healthy now. When France introduced its ‘right to disconnect’ legislation in 2017, it cited a French study which showed communication outside of the regular working day increases cognitive and emotional overload, which can lead to anxiety and burnout. 

There’s also a big link between quality of sleep, mental health and workplace wellbeing. Sleep might be something you’re less able to influence as a manager, but giving people the time and space to truly ‘switch off’ and live their lives is vital for their health and wellbeing.

Quick wins for better boundaries at work:

  • Define your ‘reasonable hours’ and then use a scheduling feature to send all work communications within those hours (including Slack messages, emails, calls and WhatsApp).
  • Take all of your own holiday allowance and talk to colleagues about taking time off openly and positively. Encourage the company founder to do the same. You can even make ‘number of holiday days taken’ a team KPI, so you can check in on progress regularly. 
  • Embed feedback loops and unconditional praise (that is, praise that’s unrelated to performance) into your work culture. By giving unconditional praise freely at work, your team are less likely to crave recognition through over-exertion.


3. Give people goals (developmental wellbeing)

Another way to prevent burnout and prioritise the wellbeing of your team is to help them stay engaged in the work they’re doing. A clear company mission statement is a good start – with any luck that’ll motivate some of your team at a high level, but clarity around their responsibilities and their specific objectives is super important to keep people psychologically engaged with their job day-to-day. That’s because we all want to feel we’re working towards something meaningful. 

The most meaningful goals are ones that feel reachable, fair, purposeful, aligned to our own personal values, and involve an outcome that we can directly influence (without too many random factors). Goals are objectively good for us for a few reasons. As well as giving us a sense of purpose, they give us a chance to prove our competence – and that can have a big impact on our confidence at work. They also help us to prioritise better. With a clear goal in mind, we can consciously decide where to put our energy, so we’ll feel more focused, less distracted and less stressed, by extension. 

Quick wins for setting better goals at work: 

  • Ask teams to communicate what they won’t be working on this week/month, as well as what they will. 
  • Show how individual and team goals ladder up to the big picture for the company. Put all KPIs in the same document, if you can. 
  • Train managers to co-create measurable goals with their reports, and check in on progress regularly. 
  • Include 'personality trait fit' on job descriptions.
  • Acknowledge and/or reward anyone who’s met or exceeded their goals. 


4. Give people autonomy (psychological wellbeing)

The higher up in a company you go, the less stressed you become. It might sound counter-intuitive, but according to a Harvard study, leaders are less stressed out than their teams. And that’s largely down to a sense of control. 

A feeling of powerlessness over work assignments, relationships with colleagues or your career direction in general can cause emotional stress, a lack of motivation and symptoms of anxiety and burnout. 

To keep your team brimming with vim, it’s a good idea to promote a sense of autonomy over how, where and when they get their work done, as well as an influence on (or at least a good understanding of) big company decisions. 

Quick wins for helping your team feel more in control: 

  • Offer flexible hours so that people can work when they feel most productive, and fit their working day around other responsibilities. 
  • Implement (paid) mental health days to let people reset when needed.
  • Communicate clearly why company decisions are being made, and invite input from team members when their roles are directly affected.
  • Empower managers to help people grow in the direction they choose. Listen to requests for work assignments and involve the team when working out project timelines and responsibilities. 
  • When promoting someone internally, make sure the new job role is actually a good fit for that person. Don’t assume a ‘step up’ is what everyone craves. 


5. Give people support (emotional wellbeing)

As a manager, it’s easier to provide professional feedback and guidance than it is emotional support. That’s because (in most cases) we’ve worked our way up to a management role and we’re familiar enough with the work our team is doing to give direction and advice. But no one teaches us how to cope with the emotional labour that comes along with a management position. 

One in three employees say mental health support from their company was lacking over the last 12 months, and a massive four out of every five managers felt ill-equipped to deal with the mental health issues of their direct reports.

Empowering your managers through proper mental health training and external resources to signpost their team towards is one of the best ways you can support people’s wellbeing and boost productivity at work. Even opening up conversations about mental health can make a world of difference to someone who’s struggling.  

Quick wins for adding mental health support at work:

  • If you have a budget to invest in your team’s physical health (like a subsidised gym membership or private medical insurance) then consider creating a budget specifically for mental health, too. You’d be surprised at the return on investment. 
  • Choose an external resource that suits your setup. There’s no use investing in a workplace counsellor to come to the office if most of your team works remotely. 
  • Train dedicated Mental Health First Aiders to spot early signs of mental ill-health in others. 
  • Find a way to get people thinking about how they feel regularly (we use Spill’s Safety Net feature.)
  • Encourage your managers to share their experiences in a regular catch-up. It’s likely that the issues they’re trying to solve alone have been addressed before in the business. 


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