How leaders can drive workforce wellbeing and performance


A healthy and productive workforce is essential to the success of any organisation in this globally competitive world. However, nearly half of HR decision-makers surveyed for the Flux report in January 2014 reported an increase in employee fatigue and disengagement, which can significantly damage business performance, says Jayne Carrington.

While most people would acknowledge that employee wellbeing is important in keeping employees engaged and motivated, research from Right Management also suggests that it is still misunderstood, with 41% of organisations regarding employee wellness as a perk rather than a necessary investment.

Organisations cannot afford unfit, unwell and unproductive people, and while HR and occupational health (OH) departments play a major role in aligning workplace wellness with the overall business strategy, leaders are key drivers in keeping employees engaged in their roles.

Role of business leaders in engaging employees

It is fair to say that the spirit of an organisation starts at the top. Leaders play a critical role in setting the culture and tone of an organisation, and a good leader can make a tremendous difference to an organisation by engaging, inspiring and developing employees. Conversely, bad leaders can disengage, derail and demotivate staff, which can have a negative impact on business productivity.

Many employees already feel vulnerable after years of restructuring and job losses, so it is important that leaders make their staff feel valued in the business. Leaders must be clear about the company’s vision, the direction the organisation is heading in and how individuals fit into this. Focusing purely on the past and only talking to employees about how they have performed in the last year can be very disheartening. On the other hand, taking a long-term view and letting employees know that they are a part of the organisation’s future, shows that a company appreciates their contributions.

Employee engagement is a two-way relationship. While leaders need to engage with employees, employees need to engage with leaders too. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the workforce landscape has changed. We now have a multi-generational workforce where different employees want different things, so it is more important than ever for leaders to understand what they want and need from the workforce, and vice versa. After all, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

One positive advance towards a personalised approach is the extension of flexible working regulations to all employees, which came into force on 30 June. In fact, research in 2013 from ISW Limits (a spin-off of the University of Leuven, specialising in wellbeing at work), and consultancy PwC looks at employee motivation and financial and non-financial rewards, and shows that if employees are happy with their salary and benefits packages, other factors could still make them want to leave a company, such as not feeling valued, not being treated well and experiencing poor working practices. This means that employers and employees need to have honest conversations about preferred working methods and what they expect to get out of their time with the company. The “war for talent” does not need to be a war if you look after your staff.

For an employee to be fully engaged with their job, they need to know that their input matters and that they are contributing to the organisation’s success in a meaningful way, rather than them operating in a silo to get their job done. In fact, research shows that employees would be more engaged if they knew how their job helped the business. Employees are far more engaged when they consider their immediate leadership to be effective, so when someone leaves a company, they tend to leave because of their manager rather than the organisation itself.

Employee engagement and wellbeing are linked to business performance

In the Engage for Success “Wellbeing and employee engagement” paper, published in May 2014, Robertson Cooper comments that since 2011, wellbeing has taken precedence over the previous focus on workplace stress, switching from a narrow and responsive mindset to one that is more holistic and preventative. Furthermore, emotionally engaged employees tend to perform their tasks to a higher standard and are less likely to indulge in behaviours that might damage the organisation.

Engage for Success also found that engaged employees with high wellbeing were 35% more attached to their organisations than those with lower wellbeing. Employees will also be attracted to an organisation that shows commitment and investment in its community. After all, people choose to work for an organisation that is successful, responsible and caring about their employees’ working environment. This is most prominent among younger talent who tend to want to work at companies where leaders give something back to them. This can start from the smallest gestures, such as managers showing genuine interest in their employees’ wellbeing and reviewing how satisfied employees are with their working environment.

While employee engagement is a key driver of organisational effectiveness and workforce performance, it can only be effective if the levels of engagement are identified and measured against a clear benchmark. At a conference organised by employee assistance programme body EAEF in June 2014, Wolfgang Siedl’s keynote talk was on “Gaining a competitive edge with a healthy and productive workforce”. Seidl mentioned the importance of measuring sickness absence and gathering data from exit interviews and how it can be hugely beneficial for OH departments. Having this data enables them to feed back to the board and demonstrate the benefits of wellbeing programmes and how they are driving business performance. Similarly, organisations can measure the wellness of their workforce by quantifying the collective wellbeing and engagement of employees and correlating the findings to key indices of productivity in the workplace. This allows leaders to make accurate and informed decisions about the kind of interventions that are most likely to lead to increases in productivity and other organisational performance measures.

With regards to an employee’s return-to-work interview after absence due to sickness or stress, for example, the line manager should take the time to understand what made the employee take time off in the first place. They should then consider how the business can support them in future and what the employer could have done to make it possible for them to come to work instead of taking time off. This can help organisations consider the preventative measures they can put in place to keep staff engaged, employee wellness at a high and workplace stress minimised.

Investment in employee wellbeing

Proactive early intervention is key to sustaining employee wellbeing. Organisations that spend more time promoting wellbeing and resilience will see an upturn in performance, engagement and productivity. In fact, when implemented effectively, wellbeing programmes can see an 80% improvement in performance. Organisations that make a commitment to employee wellbeing can also expect a similar return in areas such as resilience and enhanced positive regard for the employer.

The “Flux report” found that by 2018, three-quarters of those surveyed believe employee wellness will be something that is formally measured and reported on. This shift away from seeing wellbeing and resilience measures as employee perks, towards viewing them as necessary investments, presents a positive outlook for the future and one that is likely to become more widespread.

What is the role of HR?

Employee engagement must begin at the very top of an organisation, filtering down through every layer of the business, and HR and OH practitioners can play a key role in helping managers to maximise engagement with their teams, ensuring that employees’ needs are being fed to the business right away.

The presence of an HR professional on the board can be beneficial in feeding back employees’ concerns and helping business leaders ensure that the business vision is aligned with employees’ needs. However, with many HR departments being cut, it is harder than ever for them to get a boardroom seat. The HR department must seek to provide timely information and data to support the case for employee wellbeing’s impact on business performance, and inform leaders about employees’ changing needs, so that appropriate actions are taken as soon as possible.

Planning ahead

At Right Management Workplace Wellness, we are already having more conversations with clients on providing training for managers to help raise awareness among employees about wellbeing programmes and to let them know that they have access to support. We know that resilience is key and GDP growth is dependent on having fit, well and productive people. A clear vision, plans for managing change, flexibility and adaptability are all essential ingredients for organisations to manage flux and to help close the gap between strategic objectives and workforce planning. Being proactive and planning ahead can relieve these pressures and make resilience a positive organisation-wide approach rather than a defensive measure further down the line.


Right Management (2014). The flux report – building a resilient workforce in a state of flux.

PWC and ISW Limits. Reward barometer: the survey.

Jayne Carrington

About Jayne Carrington

Jayne Carrington is managing director of Right Management Workplace Wellness.
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