How to define an employee wellbeing strategy

In the first in a series of articles for Occupational Health magazine, Dr Bridget Juniper, an employee wellbeing specialist, offers practical advice on how to develop and deliver effective wellness initiatives.

Organisations are waking up to the potential benefits of employee wellbeing (EW) programmes. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) has reported that nearly half of the organisations participating in its 2010 absence management survey have an EW strategy in place.

The main reason for this rising interest is the established link between health and performance in the workplace. The general hypothesis is that the healthier and happier people are, the more productive they are likely to be in the workplace. We all perform at our best when we are feeling good and the academic research generally supports this notion.

While this is the theory, the harsh reality behind the vast majority of EW programmes is something different. If the overall goal of such initiatives is to enhance performance, the bulk of programmes are likely to fail. Employee interest dwindles, resource is wasted and the cynics have a field day.

So why do EW programmes have the potential to go so wrong? The main reason for failure is the lack of agreement about what is meant by the term EW at the start. If there is no shared understanding at the outset, fundamental flaws in approach and content can quickly follow.

Undoubtedly, a lot of good work on improving EW is emerging. However, there is, inexplicably, a dearth of good working definitions about what we mean by this subject. There is little standardisation and agreement about what EW involves and how it can be put into operation in the workplace. Is it something that focuses on say, people’s dietary habits or exercise regimes, or is it something more far reaching and fundamental?

The literature on this subject shows EW to be subjective and multidimensional. In their seminal study entitled “Is work good for your health and wellbeing?”, Waddell and Burton (2006) consider wellbeing generally to be a subjective, multi-element state that considers physical, material, social, emotional, developmental and activity dimensions. When applied to the workplace, this means that it is the employees’ own views on their wellbeing that should prevail, and these perceptions are likely to take the form of a number of different elements such as those highlighted by the Waddell and Burton study.

Building on this, a good definition of EW is: “that part of an employee’s overall wellbeing that they perceive to be determined primarily by work and can be influenced by workplace interventions”.

This description is helpful on a number of counts. It puts the employees’ own perceptions at the centre of a wellbeing strategy, which therefore accommodates the necessary subjectivity that can then give rise to a variety of different dimensions. Importantly, this definition also limits the scope of EW to those areas that an employer can realistically address or modify. It therefore eliminates factors outside of the workplace that may have an impact but are beyond the control of the organisation in any practical sense.

quotemarksThat part of an employee’s overall wellbeing that they perceive to be determined primarily by work and can be influenced by workplace interventions.”

A good definition of
employee wellbeing

This definition will bring a rich collection of employee insights that will help to inform the choice of programme. It will also ensure that planning and approach are directly relevant to employees.

For example, a recent EW programme for traffic wardens that adopted this definition at inception comprised a wide range of elements that looked at explicit physical and psychological health issues stemming from their work, through to specific concerns associated with uniform and equipment. This contrasts sharply with a firm of accountants acting on the same EW basis; employees were shown to have discernibly different EW needs that related more to workload, career progression and work-life balance dimensions.

Assessing specific needs

The components of each EW programme arising from this definition are poles apart. This is as it should be. It is implausible that they would be similar given the diverse work experiences of a traffic warden when compared with an accountant.

Sadly, too many organisations miss this point. They pass over the opportunity to put in place an effective and sustainable programme because they avoid asking themselves what they mean by wellbeing in the workplace in the first instance.

Instead, there is a tendency to jump straight to enacting a menu of tactical initiatives that have only minimal relevance to the real wellness issues experienced by their workforces. It is a bit like trying to make your car go faster without first looking under the bonnet.

This is not to malign the progressive healthy lifestyle programmes that some employers offer. Initiatives to promote healthier living such as offering biometric health screenings, cycle-to-work schemes or fitness club membership discounts have their place. However, if the main reasons behind the provision of such EW initiatives are to reduce absence and improve performance, a plain and worrisome gap between the stated goals and this kind of programme provision exists. It is not surprising that many become passing fads that eventually wither and die.

The success of an EW programme depends on what organisations want it to deliver and the frame of reference attached to it at the initial stage. Think about it. Relevance is key. If you ask a train driver how his employer can enhance his wellbeing and performance at work, is he really likely to suggest more lettuce on the canteen menu?

Only by injecting some disciplined clarity into what is meant by EW will organisations be truly able to make progress and realise the benefits this emerging area of HR and OH activity offers. A recent study by Vielife and London South Bank University reports that finance directors are equally as concerned about employee health and wellness as their HR colleagues. This is a welcome development, but is likely to be a passing whim if such programmes fail to deliver on their promises.

Dr Bridget Juniper is head of Work and Well-being Ltd, which specialises in the measurement of employee wellbeing. She has conducted research on employee wellbeing at Cranfield University, publishes regularly in scholarly journals and frequently presents to academic and corporate audiences.


CIPD. “Absence management survey 2010”.

Waddell G, Burton AK (2006). “Is work good for your health and well-being?” Department for Work and Pensions.

Workplace Wellness UK. Vielife and London South Bank University. April 2011.

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

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