In the third in a series of articles for Occupational Health magazine, wellbeing specialist Dr Bridget Juniper considers who should take responsibility for the development of employee wellbeing within an organisation.
In this series on employee wellbeing, we have already explored what we mean by the term and why it is of fundamental importance to businesses and enterprises. We now turn to the question of responsibility, which is a tricky one that needs to be answered in two parts.
First, who is tasked with developing this area of work, and second, who, in an ideal world, ought to take ownership in view of the evidence and research that is now emerging?
Among organisations that have an active interest in employee wellbeing, one of the most striking features is the variety of places in which this area of activity resides. For some, employee wellbeing, or a similar derivative such as "wellness", sits within the realms of occupational health.
For others, it is under the auspices of employee benefits and reward or, occasionally in large organisations, there may be a dedicated wellbeing or wellness manager. For the remainder, employee wellbeing is usually listed under the responsibilities of health and safety professionals, HR generalists or an individual project manager tasked specifically with establishing a programme and then handing over the reins to others (usually HR) to keep it ticking over.
Whatever its home, it is clear that this assortment of different owners means that approaches to delivering wellness programmes are highly diverse and difficult to categorise in any meaningful way.
Roles and responsibilities
The emphasis placed on various elements is predictably very different. For example, an occupational health team, based on their medical frame of reference, may channel efforts into being able to respond to employees presenting with debilitating musculoskeletal problems and carrying out workplace assessments.
Approaches to delivering wellness programmes are highly diverse and difficult to categorise in any meaningful way."
A committed wellbeing manager may opt to concentrate on educative healthy lifestyle promotions that have a much wider corporate application and appeal. This might contrast with an employee benefits team that may look at expanding a company's private medical insurance and offer a menu of health-based options such as gym subsidies, fitness programmes and childcare provision that individuals can sign up to.
Undoubtedly, the variety in responsibilities is down to employee wellbeing being a relatively new field that is in its early stages of evolution. It is part and parcel of the development process.
However, given its stage of relative immaturity, this is a good time to consider who should own employee wellbeing if it is going to make the contribution to health and performance that it has the capability to do.
The answer to this dilemma is that the overall responsibility for employee wellbeing must lie at the door of the chief executive.
Most enterprises that engage in corporate wellness initiatives do so because they believe it will boost productivity, as shown by the 2010 "Global wellness" survey by Buck Consultants.
This is the main objective that underpins their investment and activity. Given this orientation, general ownership for employees' health and wellness must sit with the business leader, not just the OH, health and safety or HR teams that represent the majority of conventional practices that we see today.
This view is posited on the fact that the wellbeing of workers is multi-dimensional. It takes into account a number of considerations such as physical, material, social, emotional, developmental, environmental and activity elements.
To illustrate this point, a recent study to evaluate the wellbeing of employees in a large call-centre organisation showed quantitatively that issues to do with the physical workspace were a significant source of impaired health and wellness (Juniper et al, 2011).
In addition, there were marked frustrations with the rostering system, which was shown to have a damaging impact on the ability of front-line agents to balance their role responsibilities with demands outside of the workplace and was a direct cause of the high absence and attrition levels recorded.
Based on these findings, it made sense to involve the functional leads from the facilities and the centralised rostering team in the wellbeing programme that ensued. To not have involved these teams in the programme design would have meant that important and underlying aspects of wellbeing for these call centre agents would have remained unchecked and rendered the organisation's wellbeing programme obsolete and irrelevant.
This example exemplifies the breadth and reach of employee wellbeing in an organisation. It shows that the responsibility for the health and wellness of an employee population should not automatically default just to the services and skills harboured in HR and OH departments.
It is highly likely that other corporate services have a pivotal role to play and therefore need to be at the employee wellbeing table if an effective programme that meets its objectives is to be designed and delivered.
All elements of the workplace that have a potential impact on people's health and wellness must be considered if an effective programme is to be devised."
For all sorts of practical reasons, it is acknowledged that it may not be viable for a chief executive to take a day-to-day lead on employee wellbeing and it therefore makes sense for this to be handed to another function.
What does not make sense, however, is for the incumbent tasked with managing employee wellbeing on behalf of the business leader to take only a myopic view on what this area of operation may embrace.
All elements of the workplace that have a potential impact on people's health and wellness must be considered if an effective programme is to be devised.
This is much more likely to occur if the programme has the explicit sponsorship of the chief executive and there is the tacit understanding that the appointed team may invite all parts of an organisation to contribute.
This will result in a properly integrated employee wellbeing programme that delivers on performance by engaging the right blend of skills and expertise at the point of delivery to the workforce for which it is designed.
Dr Bridget Juniper is head of Work and Well-Being Ltd, which specialises in the measurement of employee wellbeing. She has conducted award-winning research on employee wellbeing at Cranfield University, publishes regularly in scholarly journals and frequently presents to academic and corporate audiences.
"Testing the performance of a new approach to measuring employee wellbeing" (2011). Juniper BA, Bellamy P, White N. Leadership & Organisation Development Journal, vol.25, no.4, pp.344-357.
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