Acas: Linking employee wellbeing and engagement

Employee wellbeing and workforce engagement are intrinsically linked, and Acas is doing its part in helping employers meet these new challenges. Occupational Health’s Sarah Silcox finds out how.

Employers have recently begun to realise that staff engagement and health at work are intertwined, and many initiatives designed to boost levels of employee engagement also have spin-offs for well-being – for example, flexible working and better job design. The corollary is that better employee health boosts commitment and productivity. But too often, these two areas of people management operate in silos, and it remains a challenge to get the OH and personnel departments to recognise that each has something to bring to the engagement table.

Conciliation service Acas gathered employers from across the country in the latter part of 2012 to discuss the role of health and wellbeing in motivating and engaging people for high-performance working.

The conference focused on workplace health and engagement, and how closer working between HR and health professionals, including OH, can enhance individual, team and organisational performance.

The Acas event was held shortly after the launch of the Engage for Success movement in 2012, which unites the experience of leading practitioners, the ideas and research of academics, and the findings of think tanks to spread best practice in building employee engagement.


The factors producing engagement have a clear connection to health and wellbeing at work.”

 The movement, which includes the CEOs of organisations such as Marks & Spencer and BAE Systems, is the successor of a 2009 review into engagement commissioned by the then Labour Government, the so-called MacLeod review. Its first initiative has been to produce a business case for employee engagement: Employee engagement: the evidence.

Malcolm Boswell, director of Acas in the West Midlands, says that workplace well-being and engagement are intrinsically linked, but too often are treated as separate issues in people management: “The factors producing engagement have a clear connection to health and wellbeing at work.”

For example, he says, providing better flexible working opportunities as part of stress management is associated with greater employee commitment. Investing in better job design to produce “good work” also produces higher engagement and a willingness to “go the extra mile” among workers. Boswell points out that those employers scoring well in stress audits based on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) management standards also tend to have good employee engagement scores.

There is interdependency between workplace health and wellbeing and engagement, and the fundamentals of both should be considered together. Boswell illustrates the point with the example of an employer that removed a free, highly valued chiropody service – a move that quickly affected levels of engagement among machine operators.

Supporting individual health also boosts employee commitment and other aspects of engagement. A forklift company that Acas advisers worked with offers staff an employer-based physiotherapy service, enabling fitters with shoulder and other injuries to get treated quickly.

“Without this service, these employees would be signed off sick and in some cases would be off for weeks,” Boswell says.

He likes to use a football club analogy to illustrate the symbiotic relationship that should exist between OH and the operational side of an organisation. In football clubs, health services such as physiotherapy are seen as an intrinsic part of the performance management of players.

“Big teams would never dream of getting rid of the physiotherapist, who works closely with the performance coach and players. Top players expect this service to be available and would probably move on if it wasn’t there,” he argues.

Closer collaboration

It is challenging to get HR and OH professionals to work together and recognise what each contributes, says Boswell: “It is easier said than done, and Acas recognises that it could do more to stress that the advice and training it offers is of real benefit to health professionals.”

Issues such as bullying and harassment or grievances and disciplinary action – which often have an attendance or absence element – are all relevant for OH professionals. But there is still a gap in understanding between OH and line managers around each other’s respective roles.

Boswell says: “Managers look to OH to be more proactive, but are sometimes disappointed with the response.”

The health of an ageing workforce is a big issue. Extending the working lives of the UK workforce poses new challenges for employees, employers and policy-makers, and a cross-research council programme has been set up to commission projects looking at the complex relationship between the work, health and wellbeing of older workers.

“This issue is very relevant to anyone in OH, and they will need to work more closely with HR – for example, to have a role in designing jobs to retain valuable skills and knowledge in the workforce as people age,” Boswell says.

Acas advisers on hand

Do wellbeing issues trigger a request for help from Acas advisers? It depends, Boswell says: “Some employers are definitely clued in to the whole wellbeing issue, and you can tell as soon as you go onto their premises – for example, there are charts in the canteen showing how many miles employees have walked as part of a health promotion programme, and more than just a banana in the healthy offerings part of the canteen.”

In most cases, however, the issue of health at work arises indirectly during the course of an Acas intervention, often in the context of absence management.

Typically, Boswell says, an Acas adviser will identify a wellbeing issue as a result of conducting an employee survey: “The focus initially is usually on a different issue – for example, staff turnover – but an underlying health or wellbeing issue then emerges.”

Line manager behaviours

The original 2009 MacLeod review on employee engagement identified line managers as a key driver of better engagement. Managers, it argues, need to provide teams with focus and coaching, give them scope to develop and treat them as individuals. Yet many managers have been promoted on the basis of technical, rather than people management, skills and may have little aptitude in this area.


In most cases, the issue of health at work arises indirectly during the course of an Acas intervention, often in the context of absence management.”

A recent Acas comment on employee engagement spotlights the role of line managers – in particular, concerns over their confidence and competence to manage people in a way that enhances engagement. Placing trust in employee engagement, written by Acas’s Debbie Sanders and published in November 2012, points out that proactive employers, such as Network Rail, invest in the core leadership and management skills of its people, covering areas such as giving praise and recognition and using coaching skills in teams.

Line managers should be trained to avoid micro-managing and instead be at the heart of new and different ways of giving employees a “voice”, in line with the key enablers of engagement presented in the MacLeod review.

There needs to be more integrity in organisations if real trust is to develop, Acas suggests. Value-based policies and mission statements in the equalities area, for example, quickly lose meaning if managers are not walking the walk.

“Managers need training to think about how they treat people and what they expect in return,” Boswell says. “For example, not piling work on people until they snap, but rather managing workload and identifying when someone may not be coping.”

A machinery analogy is helpful when talking about employee health, he suggests, because when buying a machine, a manager would look at whether or not it is fit for the task and at its maintenance and servicing: “Some managers take machine maintenance more seriously than human capital, and might find this analogy useful.”

Ultimately, managers need to be in a position to answer the question “what more could I have done?” when it comes to employee health and wellbeing, he believes.

Building trust for engagement

Abigail Hirshman is co-director of the Workplace Wellbeing Applied Research Group, and focused her presentation to the Acas conference on the need for employers to foster trust within the organisation as part of engagement.

Trust-building encompasses a wide range of initiatives and actions not typically associated with workplace health – for example, the development of communication and other “softer” skills that enable people to connect with each other in ways that work for the organisation.

“What works for a professional services company will not necessarily work on the shop floor, and employers need to be realistic about the wellbeing interventions they plan,” Hirshman says.

In her work, Hirshman uses a step-based approach and encourages more proactive employers to start by identifying what managers and employees want from a wellbeing strategy. She cites Instarmac, a concrete firm, as a “brilliant example of a holistic approach to wellbeing”. The company created a “3H” plan in 2011, which focuses on three aspects of wellbeing: healthy minds, healthy bodies and healthy relationships.

The healthy minds component, for example, focuses on ensuring that employees’ mental health is supported, including use of a stress helpline, open-door management and “coffee confidential” sessions.

For Hirshman, the link between well-being and engagement is all about valuing each other’s contributions at work, and her team at Coventry University is currently engaged in a project researching the characteristics of employees who contribute most to the organisation.

The use of this asset-based research approach to examine high-functioning individuals should help answer the question: “What is the mechanism by which a healthier employee contributes to the organisation?”

Budget for wellbeing

In times of recession, money spent on employee health – particularly preventative programmes – might be seen as low-hanging fruit when it comes to deciding where the budget axe will fall. So how can OH and HR protect this valuable spend?


In some respects, small and medium-sized employers have an advantage over larger ones when it comes to making the case for investing in health.”

Hirshman argues that wellbeing programmes do not have to be a huge cost, and urges HR to “be innovative with what you promote”.

The health spend is more likely to survive if senior managers support programmes and actively demonstrate the behaviours that they expect from others, she says: “It’s not just about fruit bowls on the table – why not give people an extra day’s leave on their birthday, for example? It doesn’t cost a great deal as most people make up the effort.”

Hirshman is seeking a better phrase to replace “health and wellbeing” in a work context: “It’s too soft – we need something that encompasses an approach based on ‘good work’ concepts, coupled with a framework and procedures for action that are measurable and reportable to both management and employees.”

In some respects, small and medium-sized employers have an advantage over larger ones when it comes to making the case for investing in health. Those with fewer employees tend to have lower sickness absence than bigger organisations, “as people don’t want to let colleagues down”, Hirshman suggests.

They can also create a positive culture more easily, she adds: “It’s all down to making the business case for investing in health and wellbeing.”

Boswell argues that “swift interventions save money further down the line”, including those on diet and physical activity that are designed to bring about a change in health behaviours.

However, he accepts that, despite more case studies and examples emerging of the return on investment from investing in health, “it’s a slow process”.


MacLeod D, Clarke N (2009). Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement.

Podro S, Donaldson Feilder E (2012). “The future of health and wellbeing in the workplace”. Acas policy discussion paper.

Rayton B, Dodge T, D’Analeze G (2012). “Employee engagement: The evidence”. Employee Engagement Task Force “Nailing the evidence” workgroup, University of Bath School of Management and Marks & Spencer plc.

Sanders D (2012). “Placing trust in employee engagement”. Acas employee relations comment.


Acas view: The future of health and wellbeing in the workplace

Over the past 20 years, there has been growing recognition of the importance of the psychosocial environment at work and the risks it presents to employees’ mental health. Interventions in the most proactive organisations are increasingly geared towards enhancing positive wellbeing, rather than just preventing negative outcomes in the form of employee ill health.

This shift is reflected in the health and wellbeing agenda now adopted by proactive people management professionals, including initiatives on leadership, job design, organisational culture, autonomy and support at work. This shift in approach from preventing physical harm to broader wellbeing has taken place alongside a number of government policy initiatives, including the Dame Carol Black and MacLeod reviews into the health of the working-age population and employee engagement, respectively.

There is a significant body of research showing that poor management and lack of leadership skills are associated with low employee wellbeing and a raised risk of work-related stress. This research has produced a better understanding of the behaviours that managers need to demonstrate to prevent stress in teams and, at the same time, enhance engagement – for example, the way managers express their own emotions and manage conflict.

The growth of personal resilience as a way of managing stress at work is controversial. Some argue it places the onus for preventing and managing stress in the organisation on individuals.

If resilience is used to pressure employees to “toughen up” or “bounce back” after a stressful time or to work at a faster pace than is healthy, the outcome is likely to be counterproductive and lead to burnout. But the concept of resilience can be beneficial if it is embedded into genuinely supportive wellbeing programmes.

In future, the ageing workforce, continuing technological advances and global uncertainty will impact on the health, wellbeing and engagement of employees. Absence levels often drop in hard times as workers fear for job security. However, presenteeism rises, presenting employers with a new and different set of challenges.

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