Employee wellbeing: five key pitfalls for employers to avoid

Head of Work and Well-Being Ltd Dr Bridget Juniper outlines five key pitfalls to avoid in order for businesses to establish successful employee wellbeing initiatives.

Continuing the series looking at various aspects relating to employee wellbeing, this article describes the five big mistakes that organisations should avoid when implementing wellbeing programmes. By steering clear of these main hazards, employee wellbeing activities are far more likely to succeed.

1. Poor scope

The first trap that organisations must avoid is poorly defining what is included in their employee wellbeing framework. It is important to set out clear parameters for what to include and what not to include in the plan. Is it just to do with shoring up healthcare provision for those that become unwell? Or is it something that focuses on preventative measures? Perhaps it is a combination of both. Either way, it is critical to state at the outset what the constituent parts of the programme are.

Aligned with this is the need to confirm objectives. Without these, the programme lacks direction and a proper structure for prioritising resource and budget. How can a programme manager evaluate progress without having clearly defined aims against which he or she can report? I am constantly amazed by the number of employee wellbeing programmes that are described to me by owners who proudly judge their work by the quantity of initiatives rather than the quality of discerning, critical thinking that sits behind it.

2. No link to overall outcomes

This hazard is connected to pitfall one but deserves to be named in its own right. Ineffective employee wellbeing programmes are often guilty of failing to make the link between the health and wellness of staff and organisational outcomes. While many OH and HR professionals make woolly claims about how their approach will enhance the performance of a workforce, there is scant information on what exactly is meant by these declarations. Are they talking about reducing absence levels and is this short term or long term? Or maybe they are referring to presenteeism or workforce engagement. Whatever it is, it needs to be spelled out.

At Work and Well-Being, we select outcomes that are measurable and are relevant to the organisation we are working with. As an example, a law firm may wish to look at how wellbeing can link to billable hours, while for a call centre company, the outcome could be levels of attrition (hiring and training) or absence.

By tying in employee wellbeing with hard business outcomes that are pertinent to the particular organisation, the architects of the programme will have a focused approach and generate more buy-in from senior management. This will put employee wellbeing where it needs to be – at the heart of HR strategy – rather than viewed as a fluffy, discretionary add-on that offers little intrinsic value.

3. Assumptions and conjecture

Of all five pitfalls listed here, this is the most heinous crime that organisations can commit. Too many presume to know what employees want and fall into the trap of offering various, often lavish, interventions that are costly to deliver but totally out of step with the individuals they are aimed at. This observation has been a recurring theme throughout this series. Fundamental to any effective employee wellbeing approach is the need to base it on hard evidence on what’s important to staff and their work-related experiences of impaired wellbeing.

quotemarksCritically evaluating the programme at regular intervals allows stakeholders to reassess their activities and make refinements where needed.”

A “cookbook” approach to programme design will not deliver results for the simple reason that every organisation is different. As an example, a recent Work and Well-Being assignment with a train company identified that station staff experienced high levels of stress during service disruption due to angry commuters. This kind of incidence adversely affected their wellbeing and is clearly linked to absence. It was also a revelation to the OH and HR teams. Without first establishing this fact, the teams would have missed a key insight that certainly didn’t feature in any off-the-shelf approach.

4. Inaccurate costs

As with any well-executed initiative, costs must be captured and reported. For some obscure reason, these rules don’t often apply when it comes to employee wellbeing. I encourage all programme managers to pull together the headline costs of ill health for an organisation so that they can establish the size of the prize that a successful approach aligned to clear objectives can deliver. Legitimate budget lines, at a minimum, should include absence (for example, salary, national insurance, pension, benefits and bonus), attrition and presenteeism (estimated to be 1.5 times the cost of absence).

Against this, the costs of existing healthcare provision and benefits and any existing wellness programmes should be calculated. If all these are totted up, the total figures on both sides of the equation may be surprising and add substance to the business case. Costs also provide an important yardstick by which to judge effectiveness going forward.

5. Poor evaluation

If all four traps described above are successfully avoided, this last one should be easy to address. If employee wellbeing is to get the airtime it deserves in any boardroom, it is essential to track progress over time. This can be done by the numbers (pitfall four), by measurement against baseline (pitfall three), by outcome (pitfall two) or by objectives (pitfall one).

Critically evaluating the programme at regular intervals allows stakeholders to reassess their activities and make refinements where needed. The alternative is to blunder along in an uninformed fashion. Someone, probably from finance, will eventually ask for a report on progress and a lack of evaluation will leave programme holders wide open to uncomfortable questions and cynicism.

You have been warned…

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.

XpertHR provides a model policy to help employers set out the company’s commitment to managing staff health and wellbeing.

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