Wellbeing at work is like morale; most people believe that improving it must be good for an organisation and business performance, but convincing sceptical, cash-strapped managers to invest in it can be a challenge.
As part of the ongoing search for evidence about what works and why, Warwick Medical School and specialist consultancy Work2health have been funded by the Bupa Foundation to take an in-depth look at selected organisations and test the impact of tailored interventions.
Nine organisations in the public and private sectors, together employing 30,000 people, agreed to allow experts to examine their approach – or lack of it – on workplace health in return for free professional advice and workshops aimed at making a difference.
Full research findings from the 30-month Wellbeing@Work project, involving public bodies, manufacturing and service enterprises, will be published later this year.
Impact of ill health
“Many organisations are still focusing on reducing sickness absence costs – often spending significant sums in the process,” says John Griffiths , director of Work2health, who has 20 years’ government and private sector experience in delivering health at work programmes. “It begs the question as to which is likely to be more cost-effective – concentrating on trying to get the absent 5% back to work, or enhancing the performance of the 95% who are still being productive, as well as reducing the chances of their taking sick leave as well.”
He argues that the government’s view was made clear by its response to national director for health and work Dame Carol Black’s report last year, which spelt out the shocking impact of ill health and under-performance on the UK’s economy. Promoting wellness in the workplace has become a national priority.
The Wellbeing@Work project looked at the structure, implementation and impact of current health management programmes in the nine organisations concerned, and assisted them with the development of a more pro-active approach to the health and wellbeing of their staff. It also set out to define success factors.
The project was divided into four main phases: the recruitment of the organisations, research into current activities, design of interventions, and post-intervention research. The organisations displayed a typical spread of knowledge, commitment and achievement, and were positioned at various points along a spectrum ranging from unhealthy to healthy.
The project team says the response they received from, principally, HR managers within the organisations approached, was encouraging. They were initially unsure how successful they would be in recruiting organisations representing a spread of activities, size and location. The willingness they encountered demonstrated awareness of the topic and a keenness to learn.
During the preliminary evaluation phase, a steering group was formed within each organisation. Baseline data was then collected via an employee questionnaire and interviews with a range of stakeholders.
Once the initial research had been completed, the organisations were asked to choose one or more interventions from a menu developed by the project team and its expert advisory group. The project provided around five days’ intervention consultancy to each organisation.
The interventions reflected the major health-related challenges including stress, absence management and return to work, nutrition and physical activity, and placing health and wellbeing on the corporate agenda. Sub-menus included audits, strategy development, training and workplace sessions on various topics. All interventions were tailored to identified needs.
A summary of the interventions – the choices made, the reasons, the outcomes and lessons learned – for each of the organisations can be viewed at www.work2health.org.uk or www.warwick.ac.uk/go/wellbeingatwork. The impact of the interventions was then followed up a year later, employing the same methods of data collection.
The consultants recommend eight key steps for the development and implementation of a healthier workplace (see below).
“The findings of this project should make interesting reading when published later this year, but the interventions are already having an effect: one organisation immediately implemented major changes across all its company sites as a result of its experience,” Griffiths said. “However, it must be said that the degree of success appeared to depend on the organisation. Those where senior management recognised the importance of health and wellbeing embraced the interventions and appear more likely to keep up the momentum.
“It also reinforced the need to train trainers and appoint champions of health and wellbeing to ensure dissemination throughout the organisation and sustainability.”
The project team acknowledged the challenge of making a difference with just five days’ consultancy. Also, whereas one of the selection criteria for participating enterprises was that they should ideally be “relatively stable” organisations, each one of the nine underwent significant changes during the project, such as a merger or reorganisation.
“Difficult economic conditions may also have affected the take-up of wellbeing programmes, but it was an opportunity for us to make the point that ‘fit’ organisations are often better placed to weather bad times,” said Griffiths. “Although forward-thinking employers are becoming more aware of the benefits of modern health-promoting policies, it is clearly still early days for many organisations.”
Eight steps to a healthier workforce
Step 1 Set up a cross-organisation development group with representation from all stakeholders.
Step 2 Win the commitment of the most senior decision makers within the organisation.
Step 3 Make a senior manager accountable for employee health and wellbeing.
Step 4 Plan the communication of the wellbeing programme throughout the organisation in a strategic way, so that consultation is firmly established as a key element within it.
Step 5 Identify and assess existing approach and procedures. Acknowledge gaps and areas for action.
Step 6 Build an action plan based on key priorities.
Step 7 Put the programme in place.
Step 8 Evaluate and review progress.