Workforce Sustainability: The case for investing in Relational Wellbeing

Sustainability for the future is a topical concern – and quite rightly so. But while we focus on the things we must do to rescue our planet, what else do we need to focusing on to rescue ourselves – and those around us?

In today’s 24/7 always on culture, with flexible working invading the safe haven of escape that used to be home, many find themselves on a fast train to melt-down – physically, mentally, emotionally… and relationally.

And in the busyness and stress of life, as one recent study showed, work is impacting home and, in-turn, home is impacting work. Developing the ability to connect well and build strong relationships provides the buffer and resilience required to push back against the pressures of life, while remaining energised, vibrant, happy and productive. That’s Relational Wellbeing – the key to workforce sustainability.

To create healthy sustainable workforces for the future, leading organisations are beginning to invest in improving Relational Wellbeing by building cultures of strong Relational Intelligence.

Here are five compelling reasons why I think more and more will join the party, and soon…

1 – Poor Relational Intelligence is costing companies hugely

The cost of workplace conflict in UK organisations is well established and estimated at a whopping £33bn a year (according to data out of the CBI)… and climbing!

In addition, the recent YouGov survey we co-commissioned (with city law firm Howard Kennedy and think tanks The Marriage Foundation and The Relationships Foundation) revealed that 69% of high-earners have experienced significant relationship difficulties at home (compared to only 20% responding to the survey question in a nationwide poll). And of those high-earners affected, 62% said it made them more distracted and less productive at work.  Doing the maths on those numbers suggests that 42.8% of high-earners in the workforce are operating sub-optimally for extended periods of time!

This is a wake-up call for companies, given that often these high-earners are also leaders and senior decision makers responsible for gazillion pound budgets.  I shudder to think how much one moment of distraction at a crucial time might end up costing…

Interestingly, the 42.8% figure of reduced performance is uncannily similar to the 43.7% of people likely to experience mental health issues in their lifetime. According to a recent Deloitte report, mental health issues are costing UK companies between £42-45bn per annum in absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover.

We don’t today know what the cost of personal relationship breakdown and the consequent productivity loss is, but given that the manifestation is very similar (absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover), what we do know is that it is likely to be very significant.

2 – Poor Relational Intelligence is a root cause of many strategic concerns

Relationship breakdown is the common thread running through many of today’s corporate strategic people concerns around workplace conflict, inclusion & belonging, engagement, performance and productivity.  It is also the common thread running through much of society’s concerns around mental health, suicide and homelessness. In 2016, the Mental Health Foundation reported that the absence of quality relationships is killing us on par with alcoholism and smoking, and faster than obesity and lack of exercise. 

In addition to the various attempts at dealing with the symptoms, companies are becoming proactive about addressing relationship breakdown as a root cause. And it all starts with having the courage to address the elephant in the room that is relationship breakdown. As one CEO recently put it, “Whatever is going on in people’s lives, is going on… and deserves our focused attention”. The better we get at relationships in general, the better we get at turning up well (pun intended!) in all of life.

We all turn up to work with assumptions and habits around relationships. Everyone has a relational past which influences how we turn up at work – how we trust, manage disagreements and work in teams. Are our default relational habits serving us or the organisation well? The evidence suggests not. And what’s more, the demand to be constantly available for work places even greater pressure on our ability to manage relationships and expectations at both work AND home. When organisations become proactive about building strong Relational Intelligence, they equip people to thrive and succeed, which translates into profits.

3 – Support for Relational Wellbeing is vital for future recruitment and retention.

The YouGov research on high-earners and relationship breakdown also confirmed the trends that the next generation will 1) expect to talk more about all aspects of life and 2) be supported to a greater extent in the things that matter to them – like their personal relationships and maintaining quality of life.  Unlike previous generations, they are not prepared to sacrifice their work-life balance for a pay cheque. Millennials get that life is “always on” and that boundaries between work and home, start and finish times are more fluid now, However, they expect employers to be aware of the impact on their personal lives and care about the things they care about – like the relationships and people that matter to them. This takes their expectation of looking after the “whole person” to a completely new level. It follows that the Companies that do this well will be the ones that gain greater trust and respect from their employees, develop a better employer brand and enjoy better retention.

A great example of this came in a workshop we recently ran for one of the London-based Embassies, to help their staff reduce stress and improve wellbeing. The gratitude for the organisational investment was palpable. One of the participant’s articulated it best when she said “it makes such a difference to be invited to a workshop that is about investing in me rather than just trying to get more out of me all the time”. More than ever, employee commitment and discretionary effort come in the currency of “felt care” for the individual and the things that matter to them.

To be able to recruit and retain the best talent in the future, it’s clear that responsible employers could do more to equip their people to do relationships well and to manage the demands of work and home through the various seasons of real-life experiences – maternity/paternity, ageing parents, illness, etc.  Success in the future will depend on an organisation’s ability to develop and model a culture of strong Relational Intelligence & Wellbeing from the top down, so employees are free to discuss all-of-life issues without fear of crossing perceived personal / professional boundaries.

4 – Future Success Demands Relationally Intelligent and Responsible Leadership

This brings us neatly on to the level of Relational Intelligence that team leads and senior management will need to demonstrate for effective performance in their roles.  As LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, concluded after analysing thousands of employee anecdotes, people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. The most popular reasons for leaving were that people felt overly criticised or micro-managed, both symptoms of poor Relational Intelligence on the manager’s part.  The struggle to make a success of flexible working, paternity leave and other initiatives to achieve better work-life balance continues, at least in part, because managers and leaders are ill-equipped to create a culture of care and support for an individual’s Relational Wellbeing.  Even the moral failure of high-profile leaders, as evidenced by the “Me too” campaigns, demonstrate flawed assumptions and beliefs not just around power and women, but around relationships. 

Instead of talking in abstract concepts about unconscious bias and inclusion we need to identify specific, relationship-centred behaviour changes that leaders must model, and then hold them accountable for demonstrating the required behaviours.  This can only be achieved by equipping leaders to not just know, but master the fundamental habits of great relationships so that they can model quality relationships at work AND at home.

5 – Relational Intelligence is the Premium Skill for the Future

In a world of ever-increasing dependence on Artificial Intelligence and continually advancing technological capability, it’s paradoxical that “softer” human skills are emerging as the skills in demand for the future.  Increasingly, working effectively depends on our ability to develop partnerships, to collaborate and to bring a diversity of thought, backgrounds and experiences to create solutions to problems that are yet to be defined.  Fundamental to all of these is the ability to build quality relationships across differences, discover the strengths in those differences and develop the trust and mutual respect to work through inevitable challenges and achieve great results together.   

However, developing a culture of Relational Intelligence & Wellbeing is very much easier said than done.  Dave Allred, kicking coach for England rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, put it best when he said – [the best results come from] “distilling a skill to its very basic component and then replicating that skill under ever-increasing degrees of pressure and accountability”.  That’s what building Relational Intelligence and a culture of relational wellbeing is all about. And for best results it must start with the leaders – the “culture carriers” in any organisation.

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Relationship breakdown and the workplace - YouGov Research Report

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