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Roundtable: Is it still possible for Belgian employees to find happiness at work?

Risk & Analytics|Integrated Wellbeing|Risk Control and Claims Advocacy|Insurance Consulting and Technology
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February 22, 2018

Stress is spreading like poison through the workplace, and we are currently witnessing an explosion in absenteeism. Burn-out is becoming somewhat of an epidemic.

So, is well-being at work a fight we cannot possibly win? RH Magazine has brought together three experts in the fields of EB consulting, psychotherapy and HR management to debate the issue.

Are companies aware that they should treat well-being as a higher priority?

Annick Paunet (Willis Towers Watson): Yes, increasingly so. Companies have come to realise that well-being at work improves their profitability. This phenomenon is noticeable in the way insurance premiums evolve: they go up in line with the claims ratio. As far as insurance cover for work incapacity is concerned, the accident claims are mainly due to psychological and psychosomatic problems. Burn-out has a lot to answer for. It is estimated to be the cause of 35% of all accident claims. And we face yet another challenge; people are working longer and insurance contracts, in turn, are being extended. This is not a simple matter, as absenteeism actually increases with age. So, what is the answer? To continue to increase the insurance premiums? Or to amend the cover provided? At present, insurance companies provide full cover for burn-out, which has not always been the case. However, the current trend is to cover the risk for a maximum of two years. Which is also a way of encouraging companies to adopt policies to get members of staff on sick leave to return to work.

Is burn-out a Belgian speciality?

Annick Paunet: Insurance companies naturally rely on the diagnosis of a medical consultant. Is it nevertheless possible to provide a scientific definition for burn-out? The construct is still relatively vague. Other mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, are more clearly defined.

Marjan Abadie (Institute of Mindfullness): Burn-out shows significant co-morbidity with certain illnesses, depression being the main one. The symptoms are similar: difficulty in getting up in the morning or in getting to sleep, eating disorders, excessive investment or disinvestment in relationships … Just let me go back to the figure of 35% of accidents being due to burn-out. I think it is difficult to say exactly just how prevalent burn-out is, due to the complex nature of this syndrome. It could be even more widespread as some people will avoid being diagnosed as such so as not to become stigmatised on the employment market. The figures available to us could therefore be biased due to insufficient knowledge about the life of the individuals.

Annick Paunet: Conversely, it may be that some insured persons may be taking advantage of a feeling of unease at work to claim that they are suffering from burn-out. Having said that, according to recent research by Securex, it is estimated that 25% of the Belgian workforce may be suffering not from burn-out in the proper sense of the term, but instead from some psychological disorder due to stress.

Kris Wauman (Microsoft): This begs the question whether this is a purely Belgian or Northern European issue? For instance, I am under the impression that this is not such a common topic of conversation in Mediterranean Europe.

Marjan Abadie: I have a foothold both in France and in Belgium, and I notice the same in both countries. Consequently, I do not think that this is a particularly Belgian or northern problem. Basically, in the past we did not talk about people being demotivated or depressed … This statistical reality was hidden, but it is now completely in the open. There is no mistaking that burn-out well and truly exists, and that it is no respecter of borders.

Should the management recruitment process be improved?

Kris Wauman: People management has become a crucial role. At Microsoft, we are running a survey on the topic of commitment that also includes the way in which managers manage their team. This aspect is important to our company. And if the manager’s performance is unsatisfactory in this respect, we make every effort to come up with the most effective solutions to help the manager to improve. Generally speaking, I think that we should be much more careful when recruiting staff to manage people. Perhaps more so than in the past.

Marjan Abadie: It is true that, in the past, the more you were technically skilled at your job, the higher up the ladder you would climb. Managers then had incredible technical expertise, but not necessarily the ability to forge good relations with the members of their team.

Annick Paunet: The company culture plays a big part, as well as the attitude of the management. Are employers constantly increasing their demands, and constantly seeking to increase profitability? Are they not demanding too much from their personnel, to the point where the members of staff are doubting themselves? At times, it may not be possible to bring in additional staff, so everyone has to work even harder … . When the person in charge realises that the workload is just too heavy, and when they accept this as a fact, and show proof of understanding, then that is already a first step towards re-assuring the workforce.

Marjan Abadie: Indeed, taking this kind of attitude is a vital step. It helps the team members to understand that they are not at fault. The feeling of guilt is one of the factors that accelerate burn-out. The individual ends up feeling incompetent, which is paralysing in itself.

Annick Paunet: In this respect, a manager must be able to understand that their members of staff are all different. To some extent, the manager must adapt their message depending on the type of personality of the individual in question.

Just how far should one go?

Kris Wauman: Some companies invest considerable amounts of money in well-being. We are seeing a burgeoning number of consultants and specialist companies. But just how far should one go? The problem is that these workshops and training courses all take time. A 2-hour seminar actually lasts a lifetime. Then there is the risk of only taking isolated action. One must also ensure that the target audience understands why it is being organised, and understands the actual purpose of the seminar. This now begs the question: How do you communicate on the topic of well-being? How do you communicate the message you have in mind? How to ensure that this investment is not just a waste of time and money, and effectively bears fruit? That is one of our concerns at Microsoft. We consider that well-being is vital, and we invest in this field, but it has to be pertinent and effective.

Annick Paunet: You should constantly remind people of why you are organising something. Whether it is a matter of soft skills training courses or fringe benefits. The employer offers their staff something but are the latter aware of it? At times, it is useful to remind the staff of all the benefits they are receiving, because they are not always aware of them.

Kris Wauman: That is indeed true, multinationals are very generous. However, that should not stop individuals from taking personal responsibility. That is what we expect from our workforce. They invest in their own personal development. In an environment that is in a constant state of flux, that is vital to enter into a serious dialogue with our customers.

Freedom and trust

Kris Wauman: I am convinced that the company culture is a fundamental aspect. At Microsoft, it is not just about quotas, targets, objectives or figures. There is great freedom; freedom that is based upon trust. Would you like to work at home all week? No problem. Of course, we do expect results in exchange.

Marjan Abadie: I am a firm believer in this expression: An unhappy workforce means unhappy customers. In 2011, when I set up the Institute of Mindfulness to introduce mindfulness into companies, I was the only person to offer this service. Although for some it was yet another means to force their subordinates to work even harder, I was convinced of the benefits of such a tool in business. It is a way of giving staff more choice and freedom. They manage to compartmentalise their thoughts. By increasing their level of focus, they have less feelings of guilt and feel calmer. It is a win-win situation.

Annick Paunet: Profitability and staff well-being are concepts that are far from being mutually exclusive. A member of staff who feels good will be more productive and perform better. By contrast, a high turnover rate and repeated absences will have a detrimental impact on company profits.

Marjan Abadie: One of the pillars for achieving a work-life balance is to be able to separate your work from your private life. If I come to work worrying about my family, and I go home worrying about work, then I have nowhere to recharge my batteries. And switching off my smartphone will not stop me worrying about things either. I seem to find it difficult to switch off. Moreover, a recent survey has shown that most managers do not switch off during the holidays because they are afraid of missing something. There is only so much the company can do. The member of staff also has to take responsibility. We must be aware that we often put this pressure upon ourselves. If you are playing sport whilst obsessing about the next file to be handed in, then how can that be beneficial? Every single thought puts pressure on our hormonal system. We have to be able to decide to switch off from certain thoughts if that is what we wish, and likewise to focus on pleasant thoughts.

The answer is within us

Marjan Abadie: The aim is to distance yourself from what is going on around you. If you get into the habit of just sitting down, taking a good look at the situation, and how you are reacting to it, you will deal with the stress much better. You will recover more quickly. Generally speaking, when faced with a problem, we tend to look for someone to blame rather than listen to the person who is talking. With mindfulness, you can learn to take a step back and not to resent the bringer of bad tidings. Likewise, a manager may say that their door is always open, but when you go to see them, they don’t look up from their work. So, they will not be giving you a proper answer because they are distracted. After attending a training course such as ours, we note a drastic change in the managers’ behaviour. They have a much better bond with their team members, and the latter also become keen to train in mindfulness.

Annick Paunet: It is not always easy to take a step back. You work in a company that runs at its own pace, and you may have dealings with colleagues abroad who are of a different mindset … . You have to learn to say no, and back it up with facts, and by showing a willingness to remain constructive. You may not feel comfortable with this, but this can be learned.

Marjan Abadie: When you say no, you are avoiding additional pressure. Before making a definite choice, you have to be aware of the possibilities available to you. Some companies have decided to introduce a day of silence. Given that they are no longer obliged to respond to external requests, the staff can progress much quicker. We can all create moments of silence for ourselves in our daily routine.

Kris Wauman: I am sure that the human brain is not capable of doing several things at once. However, everyone wants to be able to do this. That creates tension!

Annick Paunet: I think that people’s attitudes are changing. On the part of the company that is developing a culture based upon trust, respect and appreciation. Also, on the part of the individual, who is adopting nourishing behaviour by appreciating what they have, for example. The key certainly is to learn to live in the moment.

What is the meaning of mindfulness?

Based upon the clinical method developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness takes eight weeks to learn. Firstly, the person learns to maintain their focus. Normally, the person’s concentration would wander without being able to focus.

Annick Paunet: As soon as this stage is completed, you learn to become aware of yourself, including all your weaknesses, with focus and kindness. To understand how a thought triggers an emotion, which, in turn, triggers a physical reaction. Slowly but surely you become more in tune with yourself. And in the process, you also learn to improve your relationships with others.

The aim of mindfulness is to offer a pragmatic and effective solution to the problem of psychosocial risk management. We offer a simple and tangible tool to HR, which unites and motivates the participants. At the end of the process, we notice the impact both at individual and systemic level. We offer concrete measurement tools to HRM to measure these changes.

Risk prevention

Companies are becoming increasingly concerned with risk prevention.

Annick Paunet: How can this be achieved? You can provide baskets of fruit, social activities, gym memberships etc. However, that is simply not enough. The whole idea is to provide help to the staff before they start suffering from burn-out. We can offer them, for example, the opportunity to consult an independent counselling service. This will enable them to get direct advice on specific aspects, such as their family budget, a problem with a child etc. This guidance will already relieve the pressure the person is feeling.

However, one cannot just take an individual approach. It will also be necessary to study the culture within the organisation and to prompt changes, if necessary. We therefore work with a partner that can provide solutions for both of those aspects. This is something that is completely new for a company such as ours. And it also benefits our customers.

What conclusions can be drawn from this?

Annick Paunet: Well-being at work improves a company’s profitability. Faced with this fact, attitudes are changing, both on the part of the company that is developing a culture based upon trust, respect and appreciation, and on the part of the individual, who is adopting nourishing behaviour by appreciating what they have, for example.

About this roundtable session

Host:

  • RH Magazine

Participants:

  • Annick Paunet - Senior Employee Benefits Consultant, Willis Towers Watson Belgium
  • Marjan Abadie - Psychotherapist, Founder of the Institute of Mindfulness
  • Kris Wauman - HR Manager, Microsoft

Source: RHmagazine – January 2018

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