Is employee wellbeing becoming a boardroom-level issue? The corporate responsibility group Business in the Community (BITC) thinks so, and believes senior managers are coming round to the idea that healthy staff can help produce healthy profits.
BITC’s Business Action on Health campaign aims to put businesses and public sector employers in the front line in making the workplace a setting to promote health and wellbeing. And it argues that this makes business sense.
The Business Action on Health campaign aims to get 75% of FTSE 100 companies committing to boardroom reporting on employee wellbeing by 2011. In practice, this means reporting on wellbeing in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, rather than necessarily in the annual company report.
Participating companies will be expected to demonstrate that they have set a policy, identified risks and performance standards, set targets, and monitored progress against them.
Next month, BITC, which has 850 members, is running a business summit to help business leaders share good practice and get across the message that the economic recession makes it more important than ever to invest in employees’ health.
Chairman of Business Action on Health (BAH), Alex Gourlay, who is also chief executive of the health and beauty division of retailer Alliance Boots, believes this is a moment of truth for responsible business.
“There are a lot of people who would say that it’s harder to invest in this area when money is tight, but the time to be really socially responsible is actually when things are tough outside,” says Gourlay, speaking on behalf of the campaign.,” he says. “My feeling is that the businesses that will come out at the end of the recession strongest will be those that focus on and spend time and effort on the management and wellbeing of employees.”
The campaign aims to spearhead the trend for employers to look beyond the traditional health and safety approach which focuses on limiting risk of ill health and injury. The new approach positions employee wellbeing as part of business strategy and as a driver of employee engagement and productivity.
Louise Aston, director of BAH, stresses the business case for investing in the health of employees. “The business case to finance directors on making the return on investment is powerful. For every £1 you invest, you get £3 back. It’s a false economy to cut back on investment in employee health and wellbeing initiatives.”
Another factor which may help to persuade employers to embrace the new approach is the government’s Health Work and Wellbeing strategy, launched in October 2005, led by the first national director of work and health, Dame Carol Black. In November 2008 the government announced a £45m investment over the next three years to cut the costs of ill health to the economy. However, if the growth of employee access to health and wellbeing services is to be sustained beyond that period, it is clear that employers will need to be persuaded to invest more and to raise the strategic importance of the issue.
Black hopes they will rise to the challenge, by adopting tools such as Business Healthcheck, which helps make the business case for wellbeing initiatives. It was jointly launched by the government and BITC in 2008.
“We need employers engaged in identifying what could be done to improve health and wellbeing in collaboration with the government,” says Black. “The government needs to help employers make the business case. The Business Healthcheck tool needs to be made simpler to use, for example.”
However, not everybody is convinced that companies that promote responsible business practice can offer credible leadership during an economic crisis triggered by irresponsible investment in the financial sector. For example, environmental campaigner Jonathan Porrit pointed out in his blog in October 2008 that banks such as HBOS and Lloyds TSB were innovators in (CSR). Porrit argued that “the seductive pull of big money will always trump the platitudes of corporate responsibility”.
This view argues that the benefits of initiatives such as employee wellbeing can be wiped out by irresponsible business practice in other areas, and raises doubts about whether organisations will be prepared to invest in wellbeing initiatives while cash is tight and jobs are being shed. The big question is: how do you prevent corporate responsibility amounting to little more than a kind of ‘Red Nose Day’ for business, where everybody gets to appear charitable and feel good about themselves, and then goes back to business as usual?
Aston believes the answer is to make wellbeing part of core business objectives. “Responsible business practices must be built into the decision-making processes, embedded into mentality and culture and the DNA of business so deeply that in time CSR is no longer seen as a separate function of the business or narrowly focused on social issues,” she says.
She points out that the government’s response to Dame Carol Black’s 2008 review of working-age people, Improving Health and Work, supported board-level reporting.
There is evidence that wellbeing is increasingly important to both employers and employees. Since BITC introduced a CSR index on its website in 2007, wellbeing has been the most frequently selected topic by visitors. And in consultancy Towers Perrin’s 2008 global workforce survey, employees chose senior management commitment to wellbeing as the top driver of employee engagement.
Aston says that the definition of wellbeing has to shift from negative criteria such as absence costs towards positive ones such as the benefits for productivity and employee engagement of a more resilient workforce.
Gourlay says Alliance Boots is changing its approach in line with changing health priorities among employees, especially diseases caused by modern lifestyles.
Aston points out that half of companies do not even record absence data, giving them no baseline for improvement. However, organisations such as Royal Mail have gained a big return on investment in their return-to-work programmes. In an organisation such as Parcelforce, part of the Royal Mail group, absence has a direct cost, and the company uses a wide range of metrics and depot performance reviews to track it, says Parcelforce HR director Peter Macdonald.
However, the benefits of wellbeing initiatives are less tangible and easy to measure. Alliance Boots pays a lot of attention to the parts of the employee survey which relate to employee engagement.
“The employee engagement measure is a good proxy,” says Gourlay. “It tells you how motivated people are, how proud they are to work for the business, whether they have the tools to do the job, understand the purpose of it… The big measures that are important in the boardroom are ‘great place to work’ scores, absence trends, and staff retention.”
There is universal agreement that line management behaviour is key to limiting absence caused by stress-related mental health, and in nurturing employee resilience. Alliance Boots measures managers’ performance partly on how they relate to people and how their subordinates see them.
The notion of ‘good work’, promoted by organisations such as the Work Foundation and supported by the government, is about improving productivity through working practices that ensure employees have a sense of purpose, autonomy and allow flexibility.
Even the smallest employers can improve their absence rates by introducing flexible working. Julie Cashell, manager of Oaklands Care Home, which employs 20 people, says changing rotas to fit around the needs of staff cut absence to zero in the last financial year. “Odd days off sick were causing so much stress and strain on staff, and you need a full workforce to look after people here. Now people are working when they want to work.”
Another way to embed wellbeing into management practice is to look for synergies with brands and customers. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which has 250 members, including brands such as Nestlē, Danone and Mars, draws on brand marketing expertise to promote employee health. “Our nutritionists and food scientists mean that it is an obvious thing to apply in the workplace,” says Julian Hunt, communications director at the FDF.
Manufacturer Unilever has introduced a Fit Business campaign, which aligns in-house nutrition expertise, occupational health and branding with government campaigns for wellbeing, says Dean Patterson, health and productivity manager. His job title in itself is revealing.
Linking campaigns with government initiatives helps reinforce the message and can be cost effective. The FDF, for example, is working with the Scottish Parliament to provide consultants for smaller businesses to help them develop cost-effective tailor-made solutions to employee health issues. Grants are often available for cycle-to-work schemes, and the government produces promotional material for its public health campaigns such as Change4Life which can be used in the workplace. The message from BAH is that interventions need not cost much.
Make sure that employees decide to take part in initiatives, rather than feeling obliged to join in. Hunt stresses the importance of having members of staff who become ambassadors for schemes. “One of the things that jumps out at me is how you need to find advocates for what you are doing who can engage with people on the production line – the bottom-up approach,” he says.
MacDonald warns against heavy-handed approaches. “I don’t think employers should try and boss people around and act like a nanny state,” he says. “But people spend a lot of time at work, and there’s a channel to communicate the message. But it stops there, and after that it is up to individuals.”
One key message is that businesses should be looking beyond the recession when considering staff wellbeing. BITC’s checklist for restructuring, published in January, warns: “A hard-fought reputation either with employees, customers or community stakeholders, once lost is extremely difficult to regain when the economic situation improves.”
BITC Health and Work Summit, 12 May 2009, Central London
This one-day conference is a must-attend event for anyone responsible for maximising the value of employees at a time when this is the key challenge facing UK organisations. This summit will enable delegates to:
Make the business case for investing in employee health and wellbeing
Beat the recession by building the talent and resilience of your people
Cut the costs of presenteeism and absence and boost staff engagement
Be inspired by award-winning case studies
Take away a suite of new tools providing support and guidance for companies of all sizes
Be prepared for the government’s plans to improve the health and wellbeing of working-age people.
Learn from leading experts:
Stephen Howard, chief executive, Business in the Community (BITC)
Alex Gourlay, chairman, Business Action on Health, and chief executive, health and beauty division, Alliance Boots
Dame Carol Black, national director, Health and Work
Stephen Flanagan, managing director, Bupa Home Healthcare
Stephen Bevan, managing director, The Work Foundation
Louise Aston, director, Business Action on Health, BITC
Peter MacDonald, HR director, Parcelforce Worldwide
Dr Margaret Samuel, chief medical officer, EDF Energy
David Batman, group chief medical officer, Nestlé UK
Free BITC resources and tools
All the following can be downloaded from the BITC website www.bitc.org.uk
Nurture Your People and Grow Your Business – contains key information on the Business Action on Health campaign.
Healthy Eating Toolkit – practical guidance on promoting healthy eating as part of an integrated health and wellbeing programme.
Wealth from Health – an action model for employers.
People: Our Greatest Asset? – advice on the bottom-line benefits of investing in the health and wellbeing of employees.
Business Healthcheck – an evaluation tool for organisations investing in health and wellbeing.
Healthy People = Healthy Profits – case studies of cost-saving interventions.