Building the wellbeing workplace: how to ensure your employees are healthy and happy

How to optimise the wellbeing of your workforce to increase productivity and reduce costly absenteeism
Tue 2nd Jul 2019

The last year has been unlike any that we have ever experienced. Coronavirus has impacted every single element in our lives including work, relationships and of course health. For many people, mental health and general wellbeing has taken a negative turn during the last year. According to the ONS, more than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life.

SA Law’s HR forum looked at a fast-growing employment imperative – how to optimise the wellbeing of your workforce to increase productivity and reduce costly absenteeism. Guest speakers Beth Husted from employee benefits provider Unum, and James Hewitt from wellbeing platform LifeWorks provided fascinating insights on how to build wellbeing into the culture of organisations of all size.

What is wellbeing?

Any approach to wellbeing begins with a clear definition of the term because a slightly mistaken perception can lead to poor execution. Put simply, wellbeing is a measure of a person’s overall physical and psychological health as a product of a wide range of factors such as their environment, social relationships, personal fulfilment and vision of their future.

How does employee wellbeing benefit the workplace?

Most HR professionals are keenly aware of the benefits of building organisational wellbeing. We know that having healthy and happy employees leads to a huge range of positive impacts, from better decision-making to greater productivity driving greater profitability. Furthermore, wellbeing can quickly become a self-perpetuating positive cycle.

Wellbeing neglect is also directly linked to absence, which can be one of the biggest financial drains on an organisation. Unhealthy employees cost more than healthy ones because of the additional resources needed to manage them, from extra manager time to staffing cover. The CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work report continues to find that wellbeing activities lead to better employee engagement and lower absence. It is also the driving theory behind the ‘mental health continuum’. Would you rather spend money fire-fighting ill health and absence, or promoting a healthy and resilient workforce?

What are the challenges?

Only 40% of organisations interviewed in the 2018 CIPD report had a standalone wellbeing strategy, which echoes the challenges we face over attitudes to mental health in general.

Unfortunately, many employers continue to see employment purely in terms of employees exchanging their time and expertise in return for salary and benefits. Even the most wellbeing-savvy HR teams are running into barriers further up the organisation in this regard.

Smaller organisations also run into challenges, from thinking themselves too small to commit resources to wellbeing, to believing that being small means their employees won’t be suffering the same kind of issues as employees of larger organisations.

The other key issue is under-thinking the approach. Employers that try to address wellbeing often end up with a range of ineffective, ad hoc initiatives that don’t address the needs of employees. For example, there is no point running stress workshops if your employees don’t have a problem with stress.

Although there are common approaches to wellbeing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Employee wellbeing demands a holistic approach based on a clear understanding of your organisation.

How does wellbeing fit into organisational culture?

All employees have an opinion about how their organisation cares for their wellbeing, no matter how large or small that organisation is. They may not have consciously realised it yet, or voiced it openly, but we all have a sense of how healthy or unhealthy an environment is for us.

One of the best ways to assess your organisation’s culture is using the four pillars of safety, wellbeing, purpose and diversity:

  • Safety isn’t just the physical aspects of ‘health and safety’, it is also the feeling of psychological safety that your employees have. Is your organisation a place where employees can voice their opinions? Do they feel safe in their role, and able to discuss career opportunities?
  • Wellbeing itself can be physical, mental, social and financial. These are in constant flux within an individual, and are affected by a wider range of factors than just their employment. Nevertheless, there are questions you can be asking about how your culture seeks to support and enhance them
  • Purpose is what motivates us, so think about how you communicate your organisation’s future. A mission statement isn’t enough because employees need to know that progress is being made towards the objective. Motivational speaker and organisational consultant Simon Sinek presents an excellent TED talk about how leaders inspire purpose. It’s well worth a watch.
  • Diversity is essential for a workforce. Hiring diversely leads to a greater diversity of ideas, better solutions and much broader thinking when it comes to servicing customers and your market.

How do I build employee wellbeing?

Begin with a strong quantitative and qualitative assessment of your current culture. For example, how many absence days do you have, and for what reasons? How many employees have resigned over the last year? How many employees have suffered workplace injuries? Make the most of employee surveys, post-absence conversations and exit interviews to build a clear picture of employee experiences and opinions. Smaller organisations can benefit from the greater ease with which qualitative data can be gathered, particularly if you already enjoy an open culture in which employees feel safe to express their feelings and opinions.

Once you have gathered your data, look for patterns to gain insight about the existing wellbeing of your employees, and the likely causes. It’s also a good idea to benchmark your findings against industry data.

Having identified what is happening within your organisation, you can set your wellbeing objectives and select the most appropriate tools to achieve them. The first port of call is making the most of what you have already, such as the added-value benefits of existing employment insurance policies. If you don’t have insurance, why not consider a dedicated wellbeing policy, or deploy a wellbeing technology solution?

Once these are in place, communication becomes vital. Make sure your employees know what is available to them, and encourage them to use it. If you discover services aren’t being used, don’t necessarily take that as an indicator that everyone’s doing well.

Proactivity and early intervention are two other qualities that should be at the heart of your wellbeing culture. Managers are of course a vital part of this, and should be actively looking for signs that individual employee wellbeing is at risk. However, you can’t expect your line managers to do this without training. They need to know how to spot the early signs of a wellbeing issue, and must be able to head it off before it turns into absence. You will find that most managers want to look after their team members, but many don’t feel they have the skills to do it.

You also need to think about your employees’ lives outside the organisation because physical, psychological, social and financial problems at home can quickly become problems at work. Family issues, health concerns, addiction and even financial stress can often be addressed through your organisation’s wellbeing plan. The aim is always to support the employee and keep them at work, because absence often escalates the problem.

For smaller organisations, a collaborative approach can make wellbeing initiatives more affordable. For example, can you team up with a supplier or local business and share the cost of stress management sessions? Your Chamber of Commerce may also have a proactive approach to wellbeing, with forums dedicated to helping local organisations improve their wellbeing.

In today’s organisations, wellbeing cannot be a box-ticking exercise. It needs to be a well-planned programme of cultural improvement based on a clear understanding of your organisation. Most important, it needs to be led from the very top of the organisation, driven at ground level by managers, and lived day-to-day by every employee. 

Our panel

Chris Cook, Head of Employment and Data Protection at SA Law

James Hewitt, Product Director at Lifeworks

Beth Husted, Rehabilitation and Wellbeing Manager at Unum

Paul Mardlin, Employee Benefits Director at Centor 

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If you would like more information or advice relating to this article or an Employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Cook on 01727 798098.

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