A research project has developed a method to identify factors that can damage the wellbeing of employees and have far-reaching effects on the performance of organisations. Hamish Moore reports.
Work is an essential part of life. The term “Protestant work ethic”, first coined by sociologist Max Weber in 1904, saw work as a duty that benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Also, work is generally good for physical and mental health and has a positive impact on an individual’s wellbeing, according to the Sickness Absence Review in 2011 (Black and Frost, 2011) which was commissioned by the Government.
As early as 1851, the English social commentator John Ruskin discussed three conditions under which people may be happy with their work: “They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.” When those characteristics are not respected, there is a potential for work to be detrimental to one’s wellbeing.
Wellbeing at work is defined as “creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation” (Tehrani, Humpage, Willmott and Haslam, 2007).
Cause and effect
Major changes in the workplace in recent decades as international competition has expanded have resulted in organisations seeking to raise levels of performance, putting pressure on workers and increasing stress. In England and Wales, one worker in five has developed depression or anxiety and a similar proportion (19%) report sickness to avoid work, according to a study by market research organisation Populus in 2010.
Significant upheavals have occurred in the employment sector, and most employees and organisations have faced a variety of structural and operational changes. Those transformations directly challenge the coping skills and the resilience of the workforce.
Wellbeing and analysis
DrummondHR, a Newcastle-upon-Tyne-based HR consultancy, has carried out research to develop a method of identifying, at an individual level, the factors that impair wellbeing. In recent years, wellbeing has become increasingly business critical because it affects absence and presenteeism levels which in turn are key factors for organisational performance. Presenteeism can be defined as the phenomenon of employees attending work but underperforming because of illness or disengagement.
In the UK, 140 million working days are lost each year to sickness absence. Employers pay £9 billion per year in sick pay and associated costs, plus the indirect costs of running an organisation while people are on sick leave. The UK state spends £13 billion in health-related benefits annually (Black and Frost, 2011).
If the cost of absence is relatively easy to calculate, the cost of presenteeism is more complicated to evaluate. The cost of presenteeism is supposed to be higher than the cost of absence. Identifying the factors that cause absence and presenteeism and solutions to tackle these issues is key to enabling organisations to perform better.
Identifying the factors that cause absence and presenteeism and solutions to tackle these issues is key to enabling organisations to perform better.”
To predict levels of absence and presenteeism, DrummondHR, working alongside medical statisticians from Newcastle University, established a research project in 2008 with organisations across the UK. The workplaces were broadly representative of the working population, including public and private sectors, professional office and manual work, and part-time and full-time jobs.
The university’s medical statisticians had already undertaken ground-breaking work in the prediction of the outcomes of cardiac heart surgery at the local Freeman Hospital transplant unit. Further research trials between 2008 and 2011 refined the initial questionnaire and culminated in the “Wbi” (Wellbeing Insight), a tool consisting of 87 questions in the domains of symptoms, impact of symptoms, work-related matters, coping skills and home-related matters.
Individuals scored their answers using four possible choices. These were correlated against actual absence data and against reported performance levels. Statisticians identified correlations of predictive absence at 0.79 and presenteeism at 0.86. To ensure statistical validity, a re-test was carried out on a substantial randomly selected number of individuals to ensure that the result was not influenced by the timing of the completion of the questionnaires. It was found that there was too little variation between the day or the time, or the month in which the data was collected.
Hamish Moore, senior partner at DrummondHR, says: “The findings of this research will enable organisations to identify the factors that drive absence and employee engagement, and therefore it will be possible to develop focused wellbeing programmes.”
The WBi tool enables individuals to predict their own wellbeing. Employers can use the data on the wellbeing of the workforce, absence, presenteeism, motivation, job satisfaction, and individual and collective resilience to identify issues such as the impact of management style on wellbeing, the impact of bullying, the relationship between the volume of work and wellbeing levels.
HR, occupational health and health and safety practitioners can focus their actions on the relevant issues to reduce absence and increase employee wellbeing and discretionary effort. Data on individuals is confidential. However, individuals who display a high level of impaired wellbeing and are considered at risk are referred to the occupational health department to provide confidential support on an individual basis.
Healthy and engaged employees are crucial to high performance levels.”
Organisations wanted the data presented in a way that was easily understood by managers and that could be used to promote wellbeing at work. Categories of “Thriving”, “Hiving” and “Surviving” were therefore developed to support this.
Thriving involves creating an environment where individuals have positive development, strong self-esteem, emotional health, a good work-life balance and a good level of resilience. Thriving illustrates positive growth, a fully engaged workforce, high integrity and effective internal systems.
A recent study that investigated the wellbeing and performances of 1,200 employees indicates that individuals who are categorised as thriving demonstrated 16% better overall performance (Spreitzer and Porath, 2012). A happy workforce is also characterised by higher engagement levels, as the study pointed out: thriving individuals were 32% more committed to the organisation and 46% more satisfied with their jobs.
Hiving refers to repetitive work, a stagnant view of work, feeling unappreciated, displaying signs of mindless busyness and a modest work-life balance. The organisation gives only a modest level of feedback to staff, individuals feel disconnected from the organisational purpose, rigid systems do not reflect the needs of either customers or staff, and employees have to do a high volume of tasks with limited autonomy.
The category on surviving is highly visible with symptoms of distress, disengagement and negativity, limited coping capabilities and rising levels of absence and/or presenteeism. Low discretionary effort is often seen within this group. Organisations categorised as surviving often show disengagement, loss of productivity, absenteeism and unsupportive management.
The workforce is a key and valuable asset for an organisation. Healthy and engaged employees are crucial to high performance levels. The wellbeing of the workforce can be a source of competitive advantage. Therefore, effectively promoting the wellbeing of the workforce results in important benefits.
A report published by the Department of Health in 2011 provides a calculation of the return on investment associated with wellbeing action and this represents a significant annual return on investment of more than 9:1 (Knapp et al, 2011).
Hamish Moore is senior partner at consultancy firm DrummondHR.
Black C, Frost D (2011). “Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence”, The Stationery Office, pp.18, pp.112.
Tehrani N, Humpage S, Willmott B, Haslam I (2007). “What’s happening with wellbeing at work?”. CIPD, p.26.
Spreitzer G, Porath C (2012). “Creating sustainable performance”, Harvard Business Review, The Magazine, January-February 2012.
Knapp M, McDaid D, Parsonage M (2011). “Mental health promotion and mental illness prevention: The economic case”. Department of Health, London, p.43.
Mind/Populus workplace health and stress survey, March 2010