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Why organisational reputation rests on employee wellbeing. An opinion piece.

By Suzanne Clarkson, Managing Director at Coach House Communications and Partner at The Chalfont Project

Published 13 May 2024

Why organisational reputation rests on employee wellbeing.

An opinion piece.

By Suzanne Clarkson

It’s my belief, after 20+ years working in reputation management, that an organisation’s reputation largely rests on the wellbeing of its people. Not on expensive advertising and marketing campaigns or glossy company reports full of bold statements. The wellbeing I’m talking about is the kind that comes from a sense of satisfaction, purpose and belonging, in other words, culture! Alongside are benefits, interventions, Human Resource (HR) policy and risk management practices.

Everything works together for the benefit of people and, from there, for business. People first.

It is simple. Employees will say good things to each other, peers, friends, family, potential future employees, and customers if they’re happy, healthy, and thriving. And of course, the opposite if they’re not happy, healthy, and thriving.

Wellbeing is a crucial long-term business value driver and, therefore deserves a permanent, high-level, place on the Board agenda. This can be achieved by ensuring wellbeing forms the foundation of the Environmental Social Governance (ESG) strategy, or, the latest term, Human Sustainability. To an extent, labels don’t matter. They often serve to just confuse matters and dilute important, complex matters down to a set of standardised frameworks and common metrics, but that’s one to explore another day!

What matters is that wellbeing is considered essential, as opposed to a nice to have.

That arguably won’t be achieved in its current siloed format; a format that often ends up detached from employee engagement (also called culture or behaviour). This is an essential, evidenced, precursor to wellbeing that remains so painfully misunderstood in organisations (admittedly not helped by academics that keep coming up with different definitions).

There’s now a growing understanding that wellbeing doesn’t work when it’s considered in isolation. Benefits, interventions, campaigns, training & workshops, policy & practice, employee experience & engagement, diversity equity and inclusion tend to be managed in isolation, from top down, and often by different functions. This reflects the traditional ‘command and control’ structure of most traditional organisations.

Culture: Reputational and so much more

There’s growing evidence, over recent years, from the likes of the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence and the University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, that the key to employee wellbeing is getting the foundations (the culture) right first and foremost.

It is culture that will lead to recruitment. People trust other people when deciding where to work. And if people are happy, healthy, and thriving, they’ll share that.

It is the culture that will retain a diverse workforce. People love the feelings of satisfaction and inclusion that come from feeling heard, working in a supportive team and for a great purpose.

And it is culture that’ll pave the way for working and training differently, meeting the changing needs of different generations in the workforce and recovering business productivity.

Behaviours create culture, not the other way around.

So why, despite all the investment into wellbeing, training and development, diversity equity inclusion (DEI) aren’t we moving the needle on culture?

I argue it is because it is all top-down. The removal of the negative, the risks, and the application of top-down policies and practices are all necessary (especially for preventing and reducing ill-health) but they don’t naturally bring about positive feelings and functioning. I.e., they don’t naturally bring about wellbeing.

Social copying, mirroring, social movements. This is how real change comes about / how culture change comes about, from the bottom up. The grassroots. Get the foundations, the culture right and the return on investment by organisations into everything wellbeing-related might be realised.

I’ve learnt from Dr Leandro Herrero, Author, Founder of Viral Change™ and Chief Organisational Architect/CEO at The Chalfont Project, that the outputs needed to create authentic and lasting cultural change are all linked to injecting the right behavioural inputs into the system. Dr Herrero designed Viral Change™ to help deliver large-scale, sustainable, behavioural, and cultural change. This is based on the science of social movements; change from the bottom-up. It involves five principles: non-negotiable behaviours; peer-to-peer influence; informal social networks; storytelling; and backstage leadership.

Balancing ‘do no harm’ with ‘actively do good’

The behavioural, bottom-up, and cultural aspects are arguably largely missing from the wellbeing equation. For example, there seems a current trend towards mental wellbeing sitting in Occupational Health & Safety, under the catch-all term for both mental illness and mental wellbeing, namely psychosocial risk. There needs to be a better balance here. Wellbeing isn’t only about the absence of the negative, e.g. high workloads, evidence suggests it’s more correctly defined as the presence of positive feelings and functioning.

This is recognised in the risk management world, with the emergence of Positive Organisational Psychology (POP). However, even with POP, interventions are still arguably very top-down, heavily leaning towards things like workshops, wellness audits and promises from leadership to staff about the perks of working at a job (otherwise known as the Employer Value Proposition).

Academics all appear to play in their lane, just like business functions! I think if the psychologists got together with those in the know   about what employee engagement is (a state of being – see this really insightful paper by Gifford & Young (2021) for the CIPD), how it comes about (employee contribution and challenge is a huge factor), and the outcomes that can be achieved (one of those being wellbeing), then all of this would be a completely different story. Thankfully there are some pockets of interconnected thinking out there in academia  . But they’ve yet to make their way into business thinking and practice.

For example, the quote below by Schaufeli et al (2004) evidences that work meets important psychosocial and wellbeing needs. But not just any work. They’re talking here about “good work” – an environment where people can thrive. And that’s all about culture, behaviours, and engagement. It is a strong argument for balancing ‘do no harm’ with ‘actively do good’. One that requires good cross-discipline collaboration.

“The fact that burnout and engagement exhibit different patterns and possible causes and consequences implies that different intervention strategies should be used when burnout is to be reduced or engagement is to be enhanced.”

Meanwhile, Anthony-McMann (2014) found that a sense of teamwork and camaraderie can even help tackle workplace stress. A focus only on ‘removing the risk’ or on applying top-down interventions, would arguably miss the vital importance of employee engagement here. In other words, culture.


“The relationship between workplace stress and positive, interpersonal relationships at work (both a foundational aspect of employee engagement and a job resource) may also exhibit positive tendencies because, in the face of workplace stress, such interpersonal relationships can foster both camaraderie and a sense of shared experience leading to the positive effect of having accomplished something together”

Culture, engagement, and wellbeing are completely interrelated. Culture provides the place where engagement happens. Wellbeing is an outcome of engagement, if you follow the thinking from academia, and not just from the engagement survey providers who’ve ended up making employee engagement an end, as opposed to a state of being.

Finally, I’m not suggesting that top-down values, edicts, policies, practices and risk management no longer have a place. What I’m saying is that all that needs to be better balanced with bottom-up behavioural change. As humans, we have an inbuilt instinct to copy and mirror the behaviour of others, people like us, and those who influence us. It’s how we form relationships, form opinions, make decisions, and change our behaviour. All of that simply doesn’t happen through being told what to do and how to behave by leaders. Neither does it happen through appraisals, workshops, training, reward, and recognition systems, not in any real or sustainable way.

By Suzanne Clarkson, Managing Director at Coach House Communications and Partner at The Chalfont Project. Masters in Internal Communication, Communication specialist. Reputation management | S in ESG | Employee Wellbeing



Suzanne Clarkson | Linkedin

Suzanne is a communication specialist with 25 years of experience across internal and external communication disciplines. She is on a mission to help employers better understand their people, translating insights into strategy, action and measures that encourage joined up thinking on employee engagement, wellbeing, DEI and ESG. And, crucially, all this in a way that works for people and businesses.

OH Today Volume 31 Issue 2 2023
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