How occupational health professionals can add value to workplace wellbeing

Wellbeing needs to go beyond "fresh fruit Fridays", but the input, and leadership, of OH can make a difference, SOM has said

With employers increasingly interested in wellbeing, and potentially prepared to spend money on interventions, a recent report from SOM has looked at the knowledge, skills and competencies OH professionals need to make a difference, as Nic Paton reports. 

From “fresh fruit Fridays” through to subsidised yoga or corporate mindfulness sessions, wellbeing as a workplace health intervention can sometimes get a bad PR when compared to what we might term the “sharper end” of occupational health, such as managing risk, injury or chronic conditions or the complexities of return to work.

Nevertheless, the growing interest in and (let’s not beat about the bush) appetite for investment by many employers in workplace wellbeing means it is important OH practitioners understand what is going on here. Practitioners need to get a handle on what is driving this potentially lucrative market, what role they can play, where they can add value, and the opportunities there may be as a result.

This is at the heart of SOM’s report published in December, The Value of Occupational Health to Workplace Wellbeing. Written by a team from the University of East Anglia led by Professor Kevin Daniels, a professor in organisational behaviour, and Dr Jenny Napier, an OH physician, it has set out to, as it states, “examine how occupational health practitioners and providers can add value to workplace wellbeing initiatives by focusing on the knowledge, skills and competences required to introduce workplace health and wellbeing programmes”.

So, what did SOM find? It is clear one of the first challenges when it comes to workplace wellbeing is, very simply, defining what we actually mean by “wellbeing”.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), for example, offers some relatively concrete definitions of occupational ill health and occupational health. These are: “The adverse effect on the physical or mental condition of a person arising from exposure to a workplace health risk or work-affecting condition” (occupational ill health), and the “prevention of occupational ill health and improvement of worker health” (occupational health).

By comparison, ISO’s definition of wellbeing as a “positive state of mental, physical and social health” is much looser. What this illustrates, the report argues, is that it may be valuable for OH practitioners to think about the distinction between health and wellbeing as one of emphasis rather than substance.

Notwithstanding this fuzziness (and it is perhaps telling that the term “fuzzy” appears multiple times through the report), OH can play an important role in promoting wellbeing through its existing remit of ill health prevention and rehabilitation and the promotion of good mental, physical and social wellbeing.

Given their specialised knowledge, OH professionals may be able to add value “through signposting employers to evidence-based actions and working with employers to implement those evidence-based actions,” the report suggests.

What, then, is the current appetite for workplace wellbeing interventions on the ground?

To gauge this, the report team carried out a survey of SOM members on the extent of current wellbeing provision and common barriers to implementation. While a relatively small sample size – 62 members – there were nevertheless some intriguing findings.

The main reasons why employers implement workplace wellbeing initiatives, the survey found, was as “a preventative approach to improve the health of employees” (84%), followed by reducing absence (50%) and improving productivity (45%).

OH’s valuable leadership role

HR departments were mostly likely to be responsible for developing and deploying wellbeing programmes (66%). Nevertheless, OH also had a clear leadership track record in this area, coming second at 60%. Interestingly, much lower involvement of OH in terms of delivering wellbeing was found within the private sector (50%) compared with the public sector (77%). And the fact 40% of respondents highlighted “wellbeing managers” potentially illustrated how this relatively new role is gaining traction with many employers.

The most popular wellbeing interventions by type were mindfulness activities (84%), followed by general activity and physical exercise (50%), management training (45%) and interventions around nutrition (29%) and sleep (24%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common barriers to implementing wellbeing programmes were resource allocation and “management interest” along with “establishing the business case”.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of respondents agreed they had seen at least a “moderate” uptick in interest in workplace wellbeing, driven mostly by employee demand and/or (and somewhat worryingly in the wider scheme of things) “a void in employer strategies”.

What this all indicates, the report argues, is there are clearly “potential opportunities for occupational health professionals to get more involved in the provision of workplace wellbeing services”.

Introducing and sustaining wellbeing interventions

The report then turned to findings from a series of interviews conducted with practitioners around the challenges of introducing, and sustaining, health and wellbeing initiatives or programmes on the ground.

Given the barriers identified earlier, it was perhaps unsurprising that one of the keys here was for OH practitioners to be engaging with, and simply interesting, management in wellbeing-related interventions and activities. Alongside this, it was imperative for OH to be making effective, evidence-led business cases for investment.

To that end, having knowledge and awareness of the wider business, balancing data-led arguments with personal stories, being effective at large-scale communication and embracing “multi-faceted” approaches were all identified as positive ways forward.

As the report argues: “Having awareness of how and where a business operates gives occupational health practitioners a point of entry to conversations with key decision-makers on how health and wellbeing programmes can help businesses take advantages of opportunities or mitigate against specific threats.”

What, then, in conclusion, should OH practitioners take away from all this?

OH practitioners, SOM is very clear, do potentially have a role to play in adding value to workplace wellbeing initiatives or programmes. However, they need to embrace a strongly multidisciplinary, even often cross-organisational, approach to be most effective.

This is for two reasons, SOM argues. “First, the more proactive and preventive actions might be tied closely into activities around management development, cultural transformation, job redesign, flexible working, employee benefits and diversity and inclusion.

“Second, the benefits of health and wellbeing programmes might not be realised in explicitly health outcomes like sickness absence, but may be indexed by employee engagement and retention or employer attractiveness in the labour market.”

Even though the literature and evidence base remains limited, if OH practitioners are serious about pushing wellbeing up the workplace health agenda, it is vital for them to:

  • be effective at making the business case;
  • acquire, use and communicate evidence, ideally data-led but also personal/qualitative;
  • have, and be able to demonstrate, a good knowledge of health and wellbeing; and
  • have the ability to build and sustain an effective programme of activities.

As the report concludes: “It is clear from the available evidence that, in addition to technical and functional knowledge of health conditions and the ability to appraise evidence critically, occupational health practitioners can add value to workplace health and wellbeing programmes by acquiring and using skills related to change management processes.

“Specific challenges in developing such skills across the occupational health professions may relate to adding new material into what may be already crowded curricula in academic and professional qualifications.”

  • The full report, The Value of Occupational Health to Workplace Wellbeing, can be downloaded for free from SOM’s website, at
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