Ever been drunk at work? Research shows that disrupted sleep, dehydration, distraction and uncomfortable working environments impair our ability to take in information, recognize patterns and make decisions. That impairment can reach the same effective level as being over the UK blood alcohol limit for driving.
If we don't get these things right, either by looking after ourselves or as organisations by creating the right conditions at work, both physical and cultural, we could effectively have a workforce that’s drunk on the job.
Looking after wellbeing in its broadest sense makes good individual and business sense. There’s lots we can do as individuals, managers and organisations – including paying as much attention to ourselves as we do our smartphones – check your battery status!
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00:00:01 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. How often do you take your best self to work and how often does your best self return at the end of the day? How is this affected by the environment you work in? Particularly now you may be working in a more hybrid way. What can you do to safeguard those aspects that really have an impact on your performance and your recovery from that performance, whether at work or in other walks of life?
Let's find out.
INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:00:54 Karen Plum
Since the pandemic started, interest in different aspects of wellbeing has increased, which I guess isn't really a surprise. People have been through a lot in this period, both personally and in terms of changes to their working lives.
At AWA, we've been interested in how people can bring their best selves to work for many years, looking after things like sleep and exercise, nutrition, hydration as well as ensuring they get the best from working with their colleagues and focusing on aspects such as social cohesion and trust.
Today we're focusing on wellbeing and how it contributes to the way we perform at work. I'm joined by Trevor Alldridge and Ken van Someren from Boost Cognition, AWA’s Cognitive Wellness unit, both highly experienced in helping organisations improve human performance at work. Welcome to the podcast, gentlemen.
00:01:47 Trevor Alldridge
Thank you, Karen.
00:01:47 Ken van Someren
Thank you very much, Karen, pleasure to be here.
00:01:50 Karen Plum
It's great to see you both. So I guess people often think about wellbeing as something that's perhaps a bit soft and fluffy. But if we're going to be a bit harder nosed about it, if people don't bring their best selves to work, then they aren't going to perform optimally, and that's going to impact on the organization. So we're talking here about how wellness, in its broadest sense, contributes to performance at work - is that right, Trevor?
00:02:18 Trevor Alldridge
Yes, it certainly is Karen. Wellbeing used to be a very fluffy thing. It tended to conjure up visions of, perhaps mindfulness or yoga, which might be OK for some but not really for all. Or else it formed part of a simple tick box approach - well, we'll tell people they should try to use the stairs rather than the lift, and perhaps we’ll have an Everest challenge. But those things just tended to appeal to the super fit gym types.
Indeed, when we launched Boost, it was originally focused on performance, with wellbeing a constituent part of that. But since COVID and really the lockdown enforced work from home, wellbeing has taken center stage. Now we set about showing how performance is enhanced as a result of individual and group wellbeing.
Organisations are now much more likely to understand that a better you, is a better us as an organization. In terms of individual performance improvement, there's now enough data for us to see that performance uplift is likely to exceed 20% by enhanced cognition alone. So there's a really compelling reason to elevate wellbeing to form a key part of business strategy and actually invest in it.
00:03:41 Ken van Someren
Wellbeing we know is absolutely the foundation for high performance and I spend much of my career in high performance sports and we know that happy, healthy athletes are the ones that perform the best. The same thing happens for employees, or indeed any individuals in any walk of life. So health, wellbeing, and of course the angle we put on this is wellbeing for performance is such a key enabler. And I think part of the reason why wellbeing has become such a focus is we know it pays, it makes good business sense.
And just to repeat a much quoted study which was published by Unilever back in 2019, they showed for their own expenditure on wellbeing, so for every dollar spent on employee wellbeing, they measured or estimated an uplift in productivity worth two and a half dollars. So a huge return on investment when we look at employee wellbeing.
And really importantly, today it's now possible to measure wellbeing, but one of the things we do at Boost Cognition is we use wearable technology and we can actually measure individuals levels of energy, stress or strain and recovery, which really gives us a nice objective measure of what their wellbeing is.
00:05:01 Karen Plum
Yes, and if you're looking at those sorts of numbers that's really worth paying attention to, isn't it? So I mean obviously wellbeing has really become a big focus of attention over these last couple of years, although I guess you know when we use the term, people are probably thinking about different things and trying to perhaps address different problems.
When you guys are engaged by clients, what are the typical problems they're trying to solve?
00:05:27 Ken van Someren
Firstly, there's this very topical question of where are people most productive? Is it based in the office, or is it when working at home or other remote locations? Secondly, how can we get a handle on some early warning signs of overload, or indeed burnout? I think the third key problem that clients identify and are keen to tackle is one around connectedness. Obviously during the pandemic and the enforced remote working this was a real issue.
But certainly in the return to work, it's a big question of, how do we get the right balance of in the office and at home, and a key consideration of this is how do we engage employees? How do we keep them engaged with their colleagues, with the organization? How can they collaborate? But really importantly how can we ensure there's a true sense of purpose for them as individuals that aligns with their work?
00:06:31 Karen Plum
I wonder how you go about evaluating the size and the nature of the problem in an organization. How do you go about quantifying it? I mean, can you quantify it?
00:06:42 Ken van Someren
Well, it's a great point, so I mentioned just a moment ago that we can measure wellbeing, so we can measure levels of strain and stress that people are under. And we do this using wearable technology measuring something called heart rate variability and this is very sensitive and really gives us an X-ray of an individual's day really forensically investigate what parts of the day induce strain or stress and what parts of the day allow them to recharge their batteries, or recover.
And sometimes it's quite surprising what sort of things are the stressors and what sort of things are there the energizers for many people.
00:07:18 Karen Plum
Are there different people that stress you out more than others and does the wearable tech identify who it is that's stressing you?
00:07:25 Ken van Someren
Well, it certainly would, and not only the people around you, but obviously the location you’re in and the sorts of activities that you're doing. When we see people in a highly reactive state, maybe with lots of distraction around them, we see very, very high levels of physiological or biological stress, and this is what really drains our batteries.
Conversely, when we see people are empowered to manage their time, free of distraction and really get their teeth into an engaging piece of work that they find interesting and rewarding, then actually that recharges the batteries.
So even though we're still working hard, we can manage our time to create these periods of the working day where actually we're invigorating ourselves, we're recharging our batteries, we’re investing in our wellbeing, and we're promoting performance.
We sometimes try and flip this and say, rather than just looking at problems, we try and look at this as an opportunity and ask the question - are we at our best? So for any organization, typically people are our most valuable assets, and of course as individuals we need to be investing in and looking after ourselves as well.
So there may well be an absence of any identifiable problems, but there may well always be this opportunity to strive for a higher level of performance, productivity, both at an organizational level and an individual level. But fundamentally and again, the approach we take is, you know, deploy technology and let's measure what all these different circumstances, environments, distractors, and everything else due to the individual, and so we can better manage that.
00:09:11 Karen Plum
I guess what a lot of people are going to be interested in is, the whole return to the office and the move that so many organisations are making to hybrid working, trying to find that balance that's going to help them to do the best work that they can.
00:09:29 Trevor Alldridge
One of the biggest questions on the minds of business leaders is the conundrum of how many days a week should people be coming into the office? You know, only just in the last couple of days we've had Jacob Rees-Mogg (a UK Government Minister), for example, urging civil servants back in every day, whilst on the other hand, most employee surveys and we've got hundreds of thousands of data points on that now, suggest people would actually prefer to work from home more often than not.
So that's the conundrum that they're trying to solve. Managers didn't navigate the choppy waters of business strategy by staff survey before COVID, so they ask the question why would we do that now? Of course, we've had two years where people have worked from home pretty much exclusively, or most people have, and the concept of hybrid working, how do we balance the two things, has not yet been tested.
So how can we provide some evidence really to help them out? And that's what we're really about. So Boost can call on thousands and thousands of data points to reveal how wellbeing can be measured. Although the number of data points is still relatively small for us, when it comes to actually comparing office days with home working, which we've been able to do in some of our studies. A trend certainly seems to be emerging from those and I think this would be interesting to answer your question.
So stress markers or strainers as Ken was saying, appear to be higher in the office than they are at home for the same individual I'm talking about, and we know from the scientific literature and empirical evidence of our own, there's a distinct correlation between strain and cognitive performance. The more strained, the lower the cognitive performance, typically.
We also note that stress and recovery balance tends to be worse for people when they work in the office compared with home. And we see from our studies that sleep quality and the restorative effect of sleep tends not to be as good on days people work in the office, compared with working from home, and I stress these are for the same person comparing the same person's stress and strain markers - going to in the office one day compared with going to home.
So we're not saying people who work from the office are like this, and people who work from home are like that - these are the same people, so it's a very valid comparison.
On the plus side, the energy people feel and show when they go to the office and their ability to solve complex problems, appears to be higher in the office and for many, their perception of connectedness is significantly enhanced too. So you know that shows that a balance is what we're looking at here.
And a very significant study we've been doing has looked at the beneficial effect to wellbeing of organizing work patterns, so there are days with fewer or no meetings and the data about that suggests that when people have days with a period of no meetings, perhaps even a day with no meetings at all; it tends to lower the stress markers it tends to improve that balance that Ken was mentioning between stress and recovery; and more than half of people in our studies exhibit better sleep quality when they have days like that. So we would say it's really about empowering individuals, and it's about getting the right balance.
00:13:05 Karen Plum
It's just really fascinating that you can gather data that shows that so clearly and we did a podcast episode about meetings and the scourge of meetings, and you know, we're just all sick of sitting in back-to-back meetings all the time. But of course it’s not the meeting per se, it's how well the meeting is run and whether the right people are there and whether the whole thing is a rich experience that people can feel they can contribute to.
And I guess as individuals, we perhaps don't really realize how all of these different aspects are affecting us.
00:13:44 Ken van Someren
We often use the analogy of looking at ourselves and our own internal batteries or our own energy and resilience, like a smartphone battery. And most of us are very good at keeping an eye on the battery level in our smartphone, plugging it in to recharge whenever needed.
We always challenge people, leaders, organisations and individuals, think about how good are you at doing this for yourself and for those around you as well? And this is absolutely what it's about. There's nothing wrong with running down the battery - that's what life is all about. We have hard days. We have some nights where we don't sleep very well. We have some weekends where some people might go off and run a 10K or run a marathon, or even more.
These things take a toll, but we do them for a reason. But what's really important is over time we get the right balance. Some strain is good because actually we adapt to that strain. For people in the workplace, strain is good - it’s inevitable 'cause we have to do the job, but actually it helps us build our capacity.
Where we get it wrong is by not recharging, so not thinking about appropriate nutrition hydration, not getting enough sleep and our sleep hygiene right, and not building enough restorative breaks, or re-energizing breaks throughout the day. So anyone who thinks they can go at 100 miles an hour between 9:00 and 5:00 or 8:00 to 6:00 and be productive, unfortunately is misleading themselves. And we know what's really important is actually that we take time out, during that day - we call them micro breaks - so just taking a few minutes where we switch off, really importantly turn away from the screen, and do something different. And that in itself can help recharge the battery.
The other thing it does - reduce the strain which we know is highly associated with cognitive function. And so, what we're talking about here really is helping people bring their best selves to work and we're equally concerned about ensuring people take their best selves home again at the end of the day, to do everything else outside of work.
And this might be a metaphorical ‘taking ourselves to work’ and home again, because we might be doing them both in the same place nowadays of course. We've spoken about where we get it wrong and the battery levels drop, and there's a really nice analogy here, and there's been lots of research done looking at things like disrupted sleep or dehydration or distraction or uncomfortable working environments, and actually the impairment they make on our cognitive function, so our brain function, our ability to take in information, recognize patterns, make decisions - so some of the fundamentals of knowledge workers - that gets compromised by the same amount as being over the UK blood alcohol limit for driving.
00:16:47 Karen Plum
Yeah, it's scary, isn't it?
00:16:48 Ken van Someren
Extrapolate that further, in effect if we don't get these things right, either by looking after ourselves outside of work and/or creating the right conditions at work, both physical but also cultural conditions, in effect, we have a workforce drunk on the job. And how on Earth are they going to be productive and high performing under those situations?
00:17:13 Karen Plum
Yeah, that's a car crash waiting to happen, isn't it?
Can you give us an example Ken of, once you've gathered the data, how do organisations then make use of that data - what will they do with it?
00:17:25 Ken van Someren
So when we work with individuals and gather some of this data, that is absolutely personal data and doesn't get shared with anyone else. And if you like, the actions or the outcomes of that is that aha moment of seeing what your day looks like? Again, an X-ray of the day and just promoting a self-awareness and understanding of working under these conditions, or in this way, or in this style, looks like this - versus something else. So how can I better recharge and preserve battery power through the day?
Similarly, look at the benefits of some physical activity. Look at the negative aspects of that second glass of wine on sleep quality through the night. And whilst we're not about getting people to the gym every day and stopping people drinking alcohol, again it's a self-awareness and just understanding what these lifestyle and work factors have on our own individual wellbeing and performance. So that's the first part of it at an individual level.
At an organizational level, if we can understand what working in the office looks like compared to working from home, or what a wellbeing day that is free of meetings and phone calls and teams calls looks like compared to others, then we can start taking action.
Now in some respects, taking action is the hardest bit for the organization. But I think the first part of this is having the information, having the data-driven insights on which we can help organisations start making some of those decisions around workplace strategy, ways of working, and indeed investing in employee wellbeing as well.
00:19:13 Karen Plum
Just thinking about managers, being more mindful and aware of what's going on, not just for themselves, but for members of their team - if a manager wants to be more observant, if you like and to look out for some of the signs that things might be going astray or whatever can you give us a couple of things that they should look out for?
00:19:36 Ken van Someren
Yeah, well there's a very general theme around culture here, which is - make sure you listen and you give your coworkers and colleagues and employees the opportunity to speak up about this and empower them to take responsibility for their own wellbeing performance.
Firstly, eliminate the hustle culture. Hustle culture is what we call this culture of almost celebrating busyness and long hours. It's not helpful for anyone. It's counterproductive to individual wellbeing. It's counterproductive to motivation and actually, really importantly, is counterproductive to performance and productivity as well. So we should be working smart, rather than just working longer and longer and celebrating that working longer.
Secondly, really consider connectedness because whilst some people in your team might be massively introverted and very happy spending their time five working days a week at home, others will not be. And the connectedness is important for emotional and mental wellbeing, but it's also really important in terms of just getting the job done. So making sure whatever the way of working and the workplace strategy is, making sure we're considering connectedness.
And the third one, I call it online etiquette, but I think it applies equally to face-to-face meetings and ways of working, and I think if there's one thing we've learned through the pandemic and remote working is, back to back meetings make no sense at all. And the best organisations and the best people are now scheduling 20 minute meetings or 45 or 50 minute meetings. We need to switch off and take this micro break in between and we need to just plug in and recharge, even if it's only for a couple of minutes. It has a massive effect on wellbeing and a massive effect on productivity.
00:21:41 Karen Plum
OK, well some really good advice there for managers, thanks for that Ken. Given the data that you're gathering on different people and understanding the impacts of these different working environments on them and the needs that they have, how does that map to workplace provision? Are we still ending up with very generalized options and choices, or can we really cater for everybody’s needs?
00:22:09 Trevor Alldridge
Well, you're right, the range is very wide Karen, as Ken was saying and we never compare one person with another. It's all about allowing a person to see when they're at their best and when they're suboptimal, and the things they can do to improve that.
We've seen that there's a really strong case for empowering individuals to know what suits them best, but of course to discuss that with their colleagues and teams so that it works for the team as well. When it comes to the workplace, it's perhaps a little bit more difficult, especially since workplace design has been done first in response to COVID and has been all about distancing and cleaning and various other things and in our return to work, we're perhaps gonna be less concerned about that now that we've moved on from COVID.
What we see with Boost is that organisations often like to educate their senior leadership members through personal programs that we offer, that then equips those people to inspire their staff to adopt behaviors and lifestyle choices which improve wellbeing of the team generally. And of course therefore their performance and for improved wellbeing.
It helps them to ensure that online or hassle culture that Ken was talking about is reduced and some micro breaks are built in - exercise, even if it's just getting up and walking around for a short while, getting some fresh air is encouraged, things like that. And of course helping to see the importance of all those things like sleep quality and nutrition and hydration that we know are so important. But see those in the context of an X-ray if you like that, really reveals the importance of those things that when you do this, it tends to result in that.
So that's a really important part of what Boost does with people and with wellbeing. When it comes to knowledge workers you know, there is a question - what is the workplace for? And we've seen from the data, I was explaining earlier, that energy, ability to solve problems, the ability to be able to do something very quickly rather than schedule a Zoom meeting in two or three days time perhaps, is sometimes very important.
Important for performance, but important for people to be inspired and get the most out of their day and to energize themselves. So environments that enable that very well, so that suggests better collaborative places, better places to be able to brainstorm. But equally when people come to work, we know that they need to be able to go and find somewhere to focus and do quiet study.
And one of the things that we know from surveys has always been an issue, is that organisations tend to under-provide in this scrabble to - let's maximize it, sweat the asset, let's get people into space where they can collaborate - they tend to overlook the need, or even ignore the need, for places that people can go and quietly focus on individual work and so on, which they are able to do much better at home, it turns out.
So I think when it comes to the design of the physical workplace and what people are encouraged to come to work to do, then it is about the collaboration; it is about allowing people that are perhaps newly into the workforce, more junior or perhaps newly on board, to be able to build their social networks and learn through an osmosis style. Just being in the place, hearing what's going on, but also to be able to go somewhere and get that quiet, reflective work done, and a better balance built in in the way that we design and provide our workspaces.
00:25:49 Karen Plum
Good stuff, thank you very much for that, Trevor. What about us people? What are the things that I can do to bring my best self to work and I really love the idea of taking my best self home again. That's a completely new idea to me!
00:26:03 Ken van Someren
Yeah, I think it's really important because wellbeing for performance, there's mutual responsibility for this, from the organization leaders, managers, but really importantly, the individuals themselves. And the bit around taking ourselves home again, isn't just the benevolent approach of let's be seen to look after our people again, it makes good business sense. Because if you're sending people home fried at the end of the day, you can bet your bottom dollar they're still going to be pretty fried come the next morning, or at least come Thursday, Friday morning when they're coming back in. So again it makes good business sense.
So in terms of what people can do, think about your own battery status. So what level is your battery? And we often ask people this at the start of a workshop. Where do you rate yourself right now and why? And then thinking about, through your day, both in the workplace, wherever that might be, but also at home and anywhere else - what the sort of drainers on your battery power? So what are the stressors in your life that could be mental, emotional, physical and so on?
And what are the energizers? So what are the things that help you relax and recover? And then if we can understand that, even without the data, we can start to then actually think about, well, what do good days look like, what do bad days look like and what can we do about it?
So firstly, treat yourself like your smartphone battery. Try and tune into the battery level indicator and do something about it. Plug ourselves in to recharge.
Secondly, when working, building in breaks and a lot of people will be familiar with the Pomodoro technique which has cycles of 25 minutes of work with five minutes of not working, to break up the day. And again, really good scientific evidence to show that reduces strain and improves cognitive function and therefore performance and productivity of knowledge workers.
But actually what we see is, it needn't be as long as five minutes just staring out a window or standing up, having a stretch, or going back to Wordle or whatever you might like to do for just a couple of minutes, really helps recharge and reduce that level of strain and you go back into the next task fresher and with higher cognitive ability.
So where possible, think about your day, build in micro breaks and try as we spoke about before, not just be in an always-on, reactive mode. And the third point is just thinking about what we do outside of work as well and our lifestyle. And again, you know, we're not trying to be too draconian about this, but we talk about energy and resilience, and resilience is not about standing there and taking the punches. So it's not about just constantly working harder, working harder.
Resilience is about investing in our recovery, so our sleep, our nutrition, our physical activity, getting fitter, growing our capacity to take on some of these strains, and work within life. So thinking about our lifestyle and how we can invest in ourselves because again to your point, Karen, that's going to help us be productive at work, but do it whilst taking less of a toll on ourselves so we come back, whether it's our hobbies, our families, our friends, we've got more energy to engage in those things as well.
00:29:35 Karen Plum
I love that, and it really resonates with a lot of the research that we've done in AWA over the years and there's so much about awareness - raising awareness in people’s minds and getting them to focus on some of these different aspects can make such a real difference
But sadly that's all we have time for today. Trevor and Ken, thank you very much guys for coming onto the podcast and sharing your expertise and some really fascinating insights - my head's buzzing at the moment.
00:30:03 Ken van Someren
Pleasure, thank you very much Karen.
00:30:04 Trevor Alldridge
It's a pleasure, thank you, Karen.
00:30:07 Karen Plum
And that's it for this episode. I hope we've given you some ideas, some things to try, to keep bringing your best self to work and as Ken said, to take your best self home or away from work. And I'm off to get some of that wearable tech to see how I'm doing!
CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.