at work

PROFESSOR TIM BENTLEY - School of Management, Massey Business School

Are individual workers primarily responsible for the presence of workplace wellbeing problems such as stress? Or do problems arise because of the way work is organised, designed and led?

‘When there is a problem, the usual response of employers is to put in place some sort of wellness initiative or resilience building, but all this really does is treat the symptoms of the problem,’ says Professor Tim Bentley of Massey’s School of Management. ‘We understand from our research that the social organisation at work is the greatest determinant of wellbeing, rather than interpersonal and individual factors. We work from the perspective that problems like stress and bullying in the workplace are symptoms of deeper problems. They’re mostly caused by working in an unhealthy workplace, which is often poorly led, and poorly organised.

‘A lot of work is not intrinsically stressful,’ Professor Bentley says, ‘but people face the risk of stress due to perhaps having a manager who’s a bully, who ill-treats them or gives them unnecessary deadlines, or an organisation that doesn’t invest in developing its staff properly and provide them with enough support. The outcome is staff working with guilt that they can’t do their jobs properly because they simply don’t have time, for example. When you add into that changes such as an increasing use of digital technology, which means that the division between work and nonwork life is very porous, all these things increase problems with wellbeing and mental health in the workplace.’

Professor Bentley is a founding member of the Healthy Work Group, known for its research on workplace bullying and other factors around stress and violence at work. The group is particularly engaged with industry and government in finding solutions to some of these issues. ‘What we call “just systems” is the underpinning philosophy of the Healthy Work Group,’ Professor Bentley says. ‘People should go home at least as healthy as they arrived at work, if not more so, if work is meaningful and engaging and healthy.’

People should go home at least as healthy as they arrived at work, if not more so, if work is meaningful and engaging and healthy.


Currently, the group is working on a new initiative, the New Zealand Workplace Barometer, a tool that measures wellbeing and mental health outcomes in workplaces, and what affects these. ‘We’re looking at the prevalence of things like bullying and stress in the workplace. We’re looking at job insecurity, how included people feel, and how much the organisation cares about the stress they experience. When this was done in Australia it showed a very clear link between psychological health and safety climate and increased depression, psychological distress and absenteeism. Where improvements are made to the work environment, these things are reduced, the organisation saves a lot of money and engagement increases.

‘We can position employers as either having a high, medium or low psychosocial safety climate, and that predicts mental health outcomes, costs to the organisation and the level of performance engagement of their staff. It is a neat thing because they can see where they sit and they can do something about changing it to enhance these things. It also helps us to better communicate the need to intervene, to make sure that these things are prioritised and well communicated in the organisation.

‘We’re also looking at management competencies, because in our view the quality of management accounts for a lot of what we see in terms of mental health, stress and bullying and the other psychosocial issues that people experience. Things like how managers manage their relations with their staff, how they empower them and involve them in decisions, how they deal with conflict in the workplace, how they give attention to individuals all have an impact. The great thing is there are things you can do. We can recruit and promote on the basis of managers having these sorts of competencies and we can train them as well.

‘When you go and talk to organisations about this they understand that it’s a win-win situation. If you can create a healthy work environment, provide things like good flexibility, give your managers the right sort of training and give people more autonomy, you get greater outcomes. You also get great commitment, with people engaged in the work wanting to stay and be loyal to the organisation.’

Professor Bentley hopes to see the Workplace Barometer widely taken up, as a way for organisations not only to recognise the sources of the issues they may be experiencing but also to take useful steps to address them and make positive change. Healthier workplaces is the goal.

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