Worker wellbeing – the future of supply chains

AUTHOR: Michael Weatherhead, International Director, NEF Consulting.

During the recent Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) event: Worker wellbeing: a right or a privilege, I was struck by how far the conversation has moved on around worker wellbeing in the supply chain.Three key factors seem to have helped move it on from being viewed as a privilege towards being considered a right or necessary:

Business imperative

Happiness drives performance more than performance drives happiness[1]. In a growing number of UK workplaces, worker wellbeing is accepted as being closely tied to organisational performance. Bosses now get (even if they don’t always fully embrace) that unhappy workers will, at best, produce just ‘ok’ work. They understand the relationship between happy workers and good performance. Yet why don’t they therefore look for a focus on worker wellbeing within their suppliers?

Is it because buyers are tasked with simply securing the best price from suppliers, regardless of risk factors associated with poor worker wellbeing? Is it because a focus on worker wellbeing is still relatively new and its importance is only now becoming apparent within our own work places?

Whatever the reason, the direction of travel seems set that worker wellbeing in supply chains will become of greater interest to buyers in the future.

Societal pressure

As UK views change about how the world of work could or should be, so these views have begun to permeate down the supply chain. There is pressure from:

  • A new generation that expects a different relationship between life and work.
  • A greater general awareness that cheap goods are often only cheap because of the conditions of those who produce them.
  • A greater shared solidarity due to a world more interconnected than ever before.

Reoccurring crises

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about worker wellbeing in China. It focussed on how we must move beyond audits and compliance to get to the real underlying needs of workers. Why must we do this? Well, because audits are undertaken, compliance-based solutions implemented and yet the same problems still persist.

We’ve found that suppliers can score highly in terms of objective compliance-based criteria, yet the lived experience of its workers, as measured by subjective wellbeing questions, tells a completely different story.

The South African experience

In a country such as South Africa, where I live and work, this really matters. Unhappy workers lead not only to costs that every employer globally recognises such as retention rates and absenteeism, but also to strikes. Strikes in South Africa cripple businesses, often bringing businesses to a standstill for weeks or months at a time.

When I first moved to South Africa, I could set my watch by when strikes were likely to occur – around the time collective bargaining over pay and working conditions took place between unions and employers. But were these the only factors driving dissatisfaction to a point where it triggered a strike? While pay and conditions, particularly in a country as unequal as South Africa, are undoubtedly important, there are many other factors important to workers. That so many of these are directly related to wellbeing and seen throughout our work in countries other than South Africa, highlights that people in work have the same needs the world over.

What matters most to workers but is so often overlooked

Our friends at HappinessWorks have identified those things that matter most to workers but are so often overlooked, including the following five:

Connect – Having connections, not only with fellow workers at all levels, but also with the local community and the communities our organisation serves, fuels our need for sociability.

Be fair – not only in terms of pay and conditions, but in how we treat and view one another within the work place.

Empower – Having the courage to give workers autonomy and to delegate decision making can provide rich rewards for any manager, not to mention the workers.

Challenge – Everyone enjoys challenge because everyone enjoys the feeling of accomplishment. People want to learn in their work places and to feel they are good at what they do.

Inspire – As human beings we are hard wired to give. To feel our work is serving others can be hugely gratifying and motivating.

Only one of these comes from giving workers more money! The others come from changing mind-sets. This is why we developed Well Supplied – a programme for employees and employers to co-produce sustainable and affordable solutions to improved worker wellbeing.

[1] Harter, J. K. Schmidt, F L. Asplund, J W, Kilham, E A & Agrawal, S (2010) Causal impact of employee work perceptions on the bottom line of organisations, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 378-389

This blog originally appeared on Ethical Trading Initiative’s blog spot on 13 June 2016.

ETI_RGBAbout the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the globe. Their (and our!) vision is a world where all workers are free from exploitation and discrimination, and enjoy conditions of freedom, security and equity.