Over the past few months, we’ve seen a monumental shift in mindset which means sustainability is circling back to where it belongs: centre stage. The pressure is now on businesses, like never before, to take corporate social responsibility and deliver real action on sustainability.

But, with many people facing increased mental health problems in the midst of Covid-19 lockdowns, businesses need to find a balance between wellbeing and sustainability priorities. To gain more insight on this, we spoke to Dr Eileen McNeely, Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Read the Q&A below to find out more.

Q) Can you tell us more about your approach to exploring sustainability and wellbeing business initiatives at SHINE?

At SHINE, we believe that human wellbeing is key to a sustainable future. The wellbeing potential of every one of us depends on the environment in which we live and the systems in which we operate. And the success of every organisation depends on creating opportunities for individuals to thrive and fulfil their potential.

Our scientists conduct applied research with the aim of shining a light on the dynamic connections that exist between individuals, organisations, workplaces and communities and their impact on our wellbeing. Because wellbeing in one setting influences wellbeing in all settings. 

We do this by working with companies as incubator labs to help us understand things in real-time. This has been important in the midst of Covid, because it means we’ve been able to see, not only what Covid has meant for people, but also how the future of work is being re-engineered.

Q) How do you measure “well-being”?

To measure employee well-being levels - and to monitor any changes to this - we actually have a 12 item questionnaire. Whenever we think about impact on health, we tend to think about physical health, disease and disability - and maybe about mental health - but well-being crosses five dimensions:

  1. Social belonging or connectedness

  2. Traditional health (mental & physical)

  3. Life satisfaction & happiness 

  4. Meaning & purpose 

  5. Character strengths

All of these things reflect what arguably would be “universal” wants. We also look at financial security as a means to those - so we do in fact measure a sixth dimension - but wellbeing is really comprehensive across those five dimensions. 

Q) What types of workplace and health data is it essential to gather today, so that organisations can make the right changes that support the wellbeing of their workforces in the current climate?

We have three buckets of data that we collect as part of our model and the reason to collect these is because it brings insight to everyday experience. Once you put numbers and data around that, then we’re actually able to give people the sense that you care, that they’ve been heard, and they then become part of the solution rather than the problem. It also means that we have the metrics to decide what the levers for change are and what actually is effective change. 

So, the three buckets that we have are:

  1. Overall wellbeing 
    How are people doing in terms of their wellbeing overall? We measure this using the five dimensions mentioned above.

  2. Well-being at work
    What is well-being at work? We look at how “happy, healthy and engaged” employees are in the workplace to get a sense of the business value in work.

  3. Upstream drivers of wellbeing at work
    These are resources at work that help people thrive - this is culled from 20-30 years of management organisational behaviour literature. So, learning and growth is important to people's sense of mastery, meaning and purpose. Social relationships, such as co-worker support and manager supervisor support, are also key. There are 12 or 15 drivers - depending on if we're looking at a manufacturing environment or an office environment - that really feed people's minds and souls. 

We then connect the dots between these three buckets of data to understand what makes for a really flourishing organisation, exploring the impact of the organisation on the employee. We also look at how this extends to other areas of life - and this is where businesses can really stand out. Some companies are really interested in exploring this, because it’s their “handprint”. When we talk about ‘handprints’ we are referring to a positive change that businesses can make in the world.

If companies can make their employees feel fulfilled at work by striving towards shared sustainability goals, then this not only enhances their own business value, but it’s also what they bring to the world. So, by exploring those three buckets and the connections between all, through our research we can help businesses satisfy both wellbeing and sustainability strategies tailored to what they do.

Q) How can engaging in research with SHINE help businesses to navigate their sustainability and wellbeing strategies in the midst of Covid-19? 

Any company can feel free to contact us to be part of our living laboratory. We like to partner with companies that are eager to move the needle, and who are interested in gaining understanding from real-life data on the ground. We work across supply chains and try to understand how to get a sight line from corporate through to the global supply chain, in terms of impact, value and opportunities. 

We're currently working with a group at a University in Spain, focused on the platform of work. As part of this we’ve been asking companies to really think about their sustainability strategy and their sustainable development goals. We’ve done a lot of work on purpose driven organisations - this is when a company really draws a line in the sand and says “our purpose is people and planet and sustainability.” When they do this then all of the values, the behaviours, and the culture that falls from that is really important. So, purpose and sustainability are like bookends to everything we've been talking about.

When we partner with companies, we are really looking to understand data for a higher purpose. We share, we publish and we aggregate data to make it more usable in terms of big data. What's really good about working one-on-one with companies is we get that context - so we really know what's different about them and what shapes the experience of the employees.

Find out more about SHINE here

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Leslie Thompson Director of Workplace Strategy, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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