Employee wellbeing is not paternalistic, it is a business imperative

With recent research suggesting that less than half of organisations see employee wellbeing as an employer issue, Andy Philpott argues that wellbeing is not paternalistic – it is a business imperative. And HR needs to act now.

A poll of 250 HR directors by leadership development firm Morgan Redwood in August 2015 found that less than half consider employee wellbeing to be an employer issue. This came in the wake of research this year by employee benefits provider Edenred, which found that the majority of employers believed in the link between business performance and employee wellbeing, but only see wellbeing as a “nice to have”.

It appears that the very people who are responsible for ensuring that organisations have people with the capability, skills and talent to sustain success in the future are missing one of the defining challenges in the workplace.

Few HR practitioners in the UK can disagree with the fact that we already have a “wellbeing problem” and that it is damaging to our organisations.

Levels of sick leave are higher than they need to be particularly in the public sector – and our collective inability to effectively manage sickness absence has led to direct policy intervention from the Government.

Meanwhile, for those in work, stress and the problem of “presenteeism” continue to blight employees in their day to-day jobs. It is already a drag on performance that is holding us back.

Now, consider what is coming further down the line. Due to fundamental demographic shifts, we will see ageing employees staying in employment longer. Sedentary jobs dominate many areas of the workforce, as does the use of screens and technology, which blurs the line between work, leisure and home life.

All of these factors will dictate the future health of the workplace and, if we are to have a workforce that is able to perform and support our organisations, we need to think carefully about how we plan for and support their wellbeing in the face of these new challenges.

What needs to be done to support employee wellbeing?

HR practitioners can start now by positioning employee wellbeing as a talent and performance issue for their organisations. By that I mean something that has a substantial bottom-line impact and therefore needs careful proactive investment and management. To achieve this, we need to find smarter ways of measuring the impact of wellbeing, which go beyond blunt and outdated measures such as counting sick days.

At the same time, we also need to reframe the way that organisations think about employee wellbeing. To succeed here, we need employers to recognise that physical, mental and financial health are all drivers of wellbeing and they need more proactive support.

Around physical wellbeing, we need to go beyond the way that organisations support their employees. As an obesity epidemic looms, new research points to fundamental problems with the sedentary workplace that dominates many industries today.

Health insurance, gym membership and cycle-to-work schemes all have their place, but they should be accompanied by new interventions and policies that make sure the fabric of our workplaces is geared towards health preservation. Interventions such as standing desks and changing facilities for people to encourage exercise during the working day need to be as mainstream as car parking spaces and the old-fashioned desk set-up that is still commonplace today.

Mental wellbeing

Employee assistance programmes are now mainstream but do they really help employees, or are they just a compliance mechanism for employers? We have to work harder and more proactively so that we have managers who are better able to set realistic targets, spot and work through issues of stress with employees and identify those who inevitably need support for the mental health issues that are such a common part of life.

This, in turn, will ensure that employees feel that they can raise these issues when they arise. Also, it would make sense to tweak working hours and practices, to reduce time spent on sapping stressful commutes and redressing the work-life balance.

Financial wellbeing

Lastly, we need to recalibrate the way we look after employees’ financial wellbeing. The death of the final-salary pension and decreasing job stability mean that many employees have to think much harder about how they will generate the financial security that previous generations enjoyed. As we go through this change, employers need to consider new ideas such as company mortgage schemes and financial education programmes that can help to reduce finance-related stress.

The concept of employers taking responsibility for employee wellbeing may be relatively new, but is not one that HR directors and managers can put on the sidelines for much longer. We need to explain that this is not a case of misplaced paternalism but of hard-headed commercial self-interest, which ensures that our organisations and our people continue to thrive as the workplace changes.

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