How to Start Wellbeing Conversations at Work

 This article was published by Robertson Cooper on 11/9/2015

Conversation Expert Rob Kendall On How To Start Wellbeing Conversations At Work

Being the one to start the wellbeing conversation in your business can be a daunting task. Whether you’re looking to start one small conversation with an individual, or create a big one throughout your business, knowing how to start it can feel intimidating, especially if you don’t know how it’s going to go.

Times like this call for expert advice. Good Day At Work Content Editor, Tori Wastnedge, met with Conversation Expert, author and speaker, Rob Kendall to find out how you can start the wellbeing conversation in your workplace.


Talking about the power of conversation

“One of the first things to clarify,” Rob said when we spoke, “is that I am not a health expert.” That’s as may be, but as author of Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong And How To Fix Them, and blogger for Psychology Today, Rob understands the influence conversation can have over our psychological wellbeing at work. He’s also worked extensively on safety and wellbeing initiatives in the construction industry, including the 2012 Olympics.

“Stress in the workplace is more prevalent than ever,” Rob said. It’s true. [ASSET figures].

“And, when you think about the way most of us get work done – it’s through conversations.” From emails, to meetings, to phone calls, to text messaging, it seems most of us do rely on communication with others to get things done, regardless of our role.

“So,” Rob reasoned, “There must be something inherent in the conversations we’re having at work that’s increasing people’s stress.”

There are many contributing factors, from the channels we use to communicate, the proliferation of information we are exposed to, and where we conduct our conversations. For example, our work interactions are increasingly spilling into our home life via email, making it harder to switch off from work.

If we are feeling more stressed than ever at work, are we getting worse at having conversations?


Hearing about the power of listening

Rob argues that the true power of conversation lies in listening. “The foundation for feeling known, encouraged or empowered is to feel heard. But here’s the twist. When two people are talking, we tend to think that one person’s speaking and the other is listening. But if we’re more honest about it, one person’s speaking and the other is waiting to speak. So where is the listening part?’

Of course, he admits, speaking and listening go hand-in-hand. “Your speaking is only as powerful as someone else’s listening,” Rob acknowledges. “You can test this in any conversation you’re having. If you withdraw your listening by being distracted, checking your phone, or constantly interrupting, the speaker will dry up. And they may not come back to you next time either.”

So for Rob, when it comes to introducing the wellbeing conversation into the workplace, organisations need to be more prepared to assume a listening stance than a speaking role.


Understanding the role of conversation in organisations

As a line manager, when you notice that one of your team is struggling – perhaps they’re more emotional than usual or are missing work – you want to know that you have a strong enough relationship to approach that person. Similarly, as an employee, when you can feel your wellbeing suffering at work, you want to know that there’s someone around you that you can talk to about it.

“Building these kinds of relationships won’t happen overnight,” Rob warns. “If organisations want their employees to be open and honest with their managers, they need to encourage managers to invest time and effort into these relationships.”

So conversations in the workplace shouldn’t always be about your to-do list or that on-going project you’re constantly half-thinking about. Organisations should encourage their employees at every level to take a genuine interest in the people around them.

For some people, the thought of talking with people at work about their personal wellbeing is unpleasant. Why talk with colleagues when you could wait until five o’clock and blow off steam to your friends, family and partner?

“The thing is, there are different types of wellbeing conversations,” says Rob. “There are some in which you can blow off steam about your daily frustrations, and others that are more significant, especially when you are overly stressed or struggling to cope. Ideally, you want to have a strong enough relationship with your manager to discuss any difficulties and find a way forward.”


Conversation culture

So, by sharing our thoughts with the people around us, we are less likely to have to deal with problems on our own. But how can we start to lay the foundations of an environment that would enable this kind of on-going communication?

Apart from ad hoc opportunities to check in with each other, Rob recommends introducing regular one-to-ones between line managers and their team members. “These conversations should be completely separate to any other discussions about objectives,” he says. “They should provide an open forum to discuss the ambitions, goals and general concerns of the employee.”

Of course, responsibility must not rest solely with the manager – it’s a two-way relationship. “The individual must be prepared to say, ‘This is what I need’,” stresses Rob.

And if you really want the conversation culture to take hold? “You’re going to need your senior leadership team to model it,” says Rob. “There’s no point talking with individuals about gaining a sense of work-life balance if you have leaders who are consistently sending emails at midnight and expecting a response by 7am. They have to set an example. Otherwise it’s just lip-service.”


Rob Kendall is the author of Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong And How To Fix Them. He has spent the last 25 years working with leaders to enhance the power of conversation in the workplace and has even found time to have his own original artwork sold and published in over 24 countries. 


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