How to foster organisational wellbeing: Kate Thomas

How can managers and leaders create wellbeing-led workplaces, and what are the benefits? We chat to wellbeing facilitator Kate Thomas to find out

Written by
Georgie Tomich
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You've had such a varied career, from an elite athlete for the WNBL to working as a clinical hypnotherapist and life coach. How has your background informed how you approach training?

My background is varied, I think it's one of my strengths. I have worked in the not-for-profit space (family services) for close to 12 years. My time as an elite athlete taught me how to fail forward and to have a growth mindset. You are constantly learning and seeking knowledge to enhance and improve your skills to get a competitive edge. This has translated into my life in general. I am a curious person, and always seek new learning opportunities (both formal and informal). Working as a clinical hypnotherapist taught me how to hold space for others and understand that people are doing their best most of the time. Some are just showing up carrying more than others. I feel like I have high levels of empathy and compassion. Also having the opportunity to work across a range of programs and settings in the family services sector has enabled me to learn how to translate theory to practice and learn from some of the most incredible people along the way. These experiences and qualities all play a role in designing, delivering, and showing up in the training experience. 

Can you explain the concept of 'organisational wellbeing' and how it can be integrated and embedded into the organisation's practice and culture?

Professor Felicia Huppert describes wellbeing as your ability to feel good and function effectively. It gives you the tools to better leverage the "highs" and navigate the "lows," which are part of every life, so you can move beyond simply "functioning." towards intellectual, emotional, social, and physical "flourishing."

This description is very relevant to organisational wellbeing, particularly when you look through the systems lens of The Employee (ME), Teams (WE) and The Organisation (US). Each of these different parts has a role to play in organisational wellbeing as a whole.

However, it's also important to acknowledge that focusing on organisational wellbeing will not provide your organisation with a miracle panacea for everything that causes struggle in this world – what the research shows is that if you care about your employees and have policies and procedures in place that prioritise their wellbeing then even when they are struggling, they can still do well.  

What factors within an organisation can positively and negatively contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace environment?

Several factors can negatively and positively impact the overall wellbeing of a workplace. Some of the more well-known factors are listed below:

Negative: 

  • An unsafe environment (physically, emotionally and psychologically)
  • Lack of trust between staff and organisation
  • Unmanageable workloads
  • Employees skill levels not matched to their jobs (either too complex or not challenging enough)
  • Lack of autonomy in roles and teams
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Control and command management styles
  • An organisation is driven purely by profit and not value-driven.  

Positive

  • High levels of trust and respect between employees
  • Employees are treated fairly
  • Employees are proud of where they work
  • Employees feel a part of and are connected to something bigger than themselves
  • Employees feel emotionally, psychologically and physically safe
  • Employees are fairly compensated and rewarded for the work they do
  • A focus on wellbeing at the levels of individuals, teams and organisations
  • Leaders who are compassionate and support diversity and inclusion

What role should and can leaders and managers play in creating a happy, healthy, supportive workplace?

Leaders and managers have a crucial role in creating happy, healthy and supportive workplaces. There are several ways that they can lead that can contribute to a positive wellbeing lead environment. Some of them include:

  1. Relationships – Relationships are the antidote to stress and also the key to our wellbeing. If leaders prioritise relationships, they are well on their way to creating happy, healthy, supportive workplaces. With curiosity and compassion, leaders can seek to understand the strengths and hopes of their team. They are taking time to check-in and create moments of connection regularly.    
  1. Psychological and Emotionally Safe - Start by ensuring physical safety in the work environment. Then move towards building psychological safety. This can be achieved by having consistency in the work environment and engaging in frequent open conversations with employees.
  1. Inclusive – Be a good Ally. Make sure all voices have a chance to be heard. Seek out diverse opinions and ideas and hold space for employees with an open mind. Focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
  1. Regulated – Emotions are contagious! If leaders can stay calm and regulated amid conflict and uncertainty, they will help their employees do the same. 
  1. Kind and Compassionate – Lead with kindness and compassion. Understand that employees are more than their work. They have complex lives that can impact all areas of their wellbeing. Rather than reaching for judgment when you see someone struggling, connect with kindness and compassion.
  1. Responsibility – Hold your employees to a high standard through being transparent about expectations and boundaries. Invite employees to be part of the process in setting these expectations and boundaries. Encourage collaborative problem solving, set weekly team goals and encourage accountability.  

Within your workshop, you discuss the science of resilience. How important is resilience building for an organisation, and what are some ways this can be achieved?

Resilience is such an interesting topic, and there are many trainings out there that talk about teaching people how to be more resilient. However, my understanding of resilience comes from world-renowned trauma expert, neuroscientist and child psychiatrist; Dr Bruce Perry from The Neurosequential Network. His research on stress and the brain shows that resilience has a lot to do with the patterns of stress you experience and how you come back to your baseline after the stressful event is over. He is also unequivocal that we are not born resilient, nor can it be taught. It is what happens to you.

We also have to be clear that stress is not a bad thing (most of the time). When it's controlled, predictable and moderate, it can be beneficial and also resilience building. However, when it's unpredictable, extreme and prolonged, this can lead to a sensitised stress response system and, in turn, lead to vulnerability. In a work environment, this can look like burnout.  

An example of a controlled, predictable and moderate stressor that could lead to resilience is something that pushes you out of your comfort zone, elevates your stress response and then allows you to return to your baseline pattern of stress again after. This could be something like a big project at work, where you have a looming deadline. At times you feel challenged and stretched, however, you know there is an end in sight, and you have support to reach the end goal. You get a bit amped up on stress, and then you come back to baseline again. This could be a resilience-building event.  

However, if you are a frontline worker and have been loaded up with cases to manage (real people, with real problems), you have inadequate support, including supervision and training. You are working crazy hours, your wage doesn't cover your living expenses, and you have a family at home to support. Then this pattern of stress is most likely not resilience building and could push an employee towards vulnerability and, eventually burnout.

Of course, this is a very simplistic description of patterns of stress and resilience, and many other individual factors contribute. 

Organisations can foster a resilience-building environment if they focus on their people first and instil a culture of community care. This is where the organisation looks after the people, and the people look after each other. The need for this model of organisational wellbeing has been exacerbated by Covid 19, with many employees reporting that they are worn out. Organisations need to be intentional about how they look after their people and also show that they care. This in turn will lead to more resilient organisations.

What are some of the core principles that can contribute to a positive and wellbeing-led workplace environment

A whole range of principles can contribute to positive and well-being-led workplace environments; however, The Neurosequential Models Six R's of Organisational Care (2002-2021 Bruce D Perry) are a set of core principles that are developmentally informed, biologically respectful, and evidence based. If organisations integrated these six R's into their workplace, then this most likely means they are putting your employee's wellbeing first:

Relational (safe): The organisation environment, particularly the leadership and supervisory environment, is consistent, predictable and safe – physically and psychologically.

Relevant (matched to skill level): Employees are doing work that they are matched to. They are not underutilised or utilised in a way where their skill level is lower than their assigned role.

Reward (pleasurable): Employees need to be meaningfully and fairly compensated for the work they do. There needs to be equal and clear pathways forward for reward and promotion and adequate opportunity for relevant and meaningful PD.

Rhythmic (resonates with neural pathways): Leaders and organisations understand and pay attention to when employees have energy and focus and when they don't and are respectful of people's natural rhythms.  

Repetitive (patterned):  There needs to be predictability throughout workdays. Routines and rituals within teams and the organisation.

Respectful (employees, teams and organisation) Respect is shown across all levels of the organisation including employees, across teams and at the leadership level.

Your company's name "Kokoro" translates as "the connection of heart, mind and spirit" in Japanese. How essential are these three elements in a workplace environment?

When Kokoro is translated to English, it becomes three separate things: ‘heart, mind and spirit’, however, the word Kokoro in Japanese doesn't separate these three elements. Instead, it sees them as all interconnected and in flow. When you are in flow with your heart, mind and spirit, it means you are in balance and harmony exits within. This translates beautifully to a workplace environment that has a clear purpose (spirit), values its employees (mind) and has leaders who value diversity, inclusion and lead with compassion (heart). When an organisation embraces these elements, it puts it's people front and centre, is intentional about how it looks after their wellbeing and harmony can also exist within. 

Kate Thomas is a consultant, facilitator and founder of Kokoro Consulting. Kate has spent more than 15 years working in, designing and advocating for programs that enhance community wellbeing across various professional domains, including education, sport, corporate and community sectors, delivering evidence-based and engaging training that challenges audiences' thinking.

You can learn more about organisational wellbeing at Kate's online workshop Organisational Wellbeing for Leaders on October 6 and November 17. To register visit our Events page. Kate is also running another workshop, The Emotionally Intelligent Leader on October 21 and November 25.

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