Why HR should take a lead on employee wellbeing

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When it comes to workplace wellness, HR directors and line managers are divided on the issue’s relevance, according to a recent report. The report paints a useful picture of just how much organisations seem to struggle with workplace wellness, but also where they need to focus their efforts, says Jayne Carrington.

In Right Management’s The flux report: Building a resilient workforce in the face of flux, published in February 2014, 60% of HR directors recognise that employee wellness and resilience are key attributes to enabling businesses to achieve their strategic objectives. On the other hand, four in 10 admitted that they consider wellness activity as an employee perk rather than a necessary business investment. And to confuse things further, three-quarters of the HR directors predicted that employee wellness will be formally reported on by 2018. There is a clear disconnect here between what seems to matter to HR directors and how they see themselves achieving it. So, what can be done?

Proactive rather than reactive

One key problem is that the area of wellness and resilience is often misunderstood. It is thought of as a firefighting measure; something that is introduced when things go wrong in the company and performance slides. This view is, if not completely wrong, very narrow minded. “Prevention rather than cure” has never been more appropriate. Wellbeing should not be about reactive illness management – employers shouldn’t wait until their employees become stressed or ill then seek to cure.

Early intervention really does matter. Businesses that spend more time promoting wellbeing and resilience see an upturn in performance, engagement and productivity. If they also use specific data gathering and measurement throughout the year, they can demonstrate the effect of the wellbeing programmes that they’ve implemented.

When done well, wellbeing programmes can see an 80% improvement in organisational performance. In addition, businesses that make a commitment to employee wellbeing can also expect a return in areas such as psychological contract, improved sense of wellbeing, resilience and enhanced positive regard for the employer.

However, in order to implement the right measures, employers first need to recognise where potential problems could stem from. In the “Flux report”, two line managers in five said that they found too much change and uncertainty at work to be the biggest cause of stress and frustration – and it isn’t just an excessive workload and working long hours that can strain the workforce. Factors such as personal circumstances and family arrangements can also have a huge effect on workers’ resilience.

Managing employee stress

While HR directors might not always be in a position to decrease people’s workloads or change their life outside the workplace, they can help to combat the stress caused by uncertainty. Especially at times of constant change, HR directors should encourage increased communication from leadership to improve employee engagement and alignment.

Organisations need to be able to demonstrate to their employees that the business has not only survived the flux, it is also moving forward and the employees will progress with it. Leaders need to be clear about the corporate story and have a narrative that translates well within the organisation. Everyone in the business needs to know how their individual role contributes and fits into the direction of the business. If employees have a clear idea of what is expected of them and their future career prospects, they are more confident in their role and as a result perform better.

Understanding resilience

Another telling sign highlighting that resilience is misunderstood is HR directors’ perceptions that age defines the worker’s ability to be resilient. According to the report, people in their 30s are perceived to be best equipped to deal with changes at work, while those in their 50s and 60s are considered least able to cope. This suggests that many connect resilience purely with personal health, when in fact it is much more than that.

Everyone has potential to be resilient, efficient, productive and happy at work. People just need the right support. With an ageing population, it is important that organisations recognise this. They simply cannot afford to overlook older workers just because they mistakenly believe that they are less resilient.

If the flux of the last five years has taught us anything, it is that resilience is a key attribute both for individuals and organisations. However, employees should not be expected to make this journey on their own. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that they have the right support structures in place. Resilience really must be led from the top down and be part of the culture if it is to be successful.

Key findings from Right Management’s flux report*

  • Three-quarters of HR directors predict that employee wellness will be formally measured and reported on by 2018.
  • Four senior HR directors in 10 regard wellness activity as an “employee perk”, rather than a necessary business investment.
  • Three HR directors in five identify employee wellness and resilience as core to enabling organisations to achieve their strategic objectives.
  • One in two (53%) said that employees’ ability to deal with unanticipated problems is the key attribute for future business success.
  • Seventy-two per cent of line managers stated that their organisation could be doing more to protect them from, or help them to manage, periods of persistent stress.
  • Forty-nine per cent are introducing improved flexible working arrangements.
  • Forty-two per cent are introducing increased internal communication from leadership to maintain morale.
  • Thirty-six per cent are introducing promotions, but with minimal pay rises.
  • Ninety-one per cent think it likely that by 2018 people will be recruited on their ability to deal with change and uncertainty.

*The findings are based on 100 interviews with HR decision makers and 250 interviews with line managers, from UK and Irish companies with 500 or more employees, conducted during August and September 2013.

Jayne Carrington

About Jayne Carrington

Jayne Carrington is managing director of Right Management Workplace Wellness.
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