Making the most of employee wellbeing initiatives

Wellbeing specialist Dr Bridget Juniper looks at how employee wellbeing is an important factor in organisational performance and how it can be used to maximum advantage.

The phrases “employee wellbeing” or “employee wellness” are entering the business lexicon more and more. Advisers such as Buck Consultants, which regularly charts corporate wellness activity, report that workplace wellness is no longer a niche activity but something that is becoming more typical among organisations of all sizes and industries.

While this trend is to be welcomed, it is worth pausing to ask what is it that is prompting this rise in interest and whether this is a passing fad or a permanent fixture on company agendas?

The noise in the mainstream media on the topic of health and wellness has been largely generated as a consequence of government activity.

Most recently, we heard about Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for a wellbeing index, which follows hot on the heels of Dame Carol Black’s seminal report Working for a healthier tomorrow – which considered the wellbeing of Britain’s working-age population – and Dr Steve Boorman’s review on the health and wellbeing of the NHS workforce.

This push by our policymakers is in response to politicians becoming increasingly worried over the rising costs of absence and work-related ill health to the public purse.

Impact on business performance 

It is this same sentiment that has spurred organisations into taking up the baton and deciding to offer various employee wellbeing programmes to support their workers.

HR and OH professionals hold that there is a clear link between the wellbeing of the workforce and organisational performance, a belief that is borne out by the Buck Consultants research confirming that the primary goals behind employee wellbeing initiatives are to improve worker productivity and to reduce presenteeism and sickness absence.

quotemarksHR and OH professionals hold that there is a clear link between the wellbeing of the workforce and organisational performance.”

This is based on the undeniable tenet that a healthy workforce is a more successful and prolific one, and builds on the work of pioneers in this field such as Thomas Wright at Kansas State University in the US.

Wright and his colleagues have conducted a lot of research over the past 10 years to demonstrate a clear link between the psychological wellbeing (happiness) of workers and the employer’s bottom line. According to their findings, employees who have low levels of psychological wellbeing can cost companies around $75 (£46) per person per week in productivity, which equates to about $4,000 (£2,500) per year. For a 100-strong company then, poor levels of wellbeing could be costing £250,000 per year.

This kind of academic research is hard to argue against and is implicit in the business cases behind the majority of corporate wellness programmes.

Wellbeing focus

So, if the academic work shows the important role that employee wellbeing plays in the attainment of business performance goals, why do so many such schemes fail to deliver these business outcomes in the real world?

The main reason is that for the majority of organisations, the architects of these activities read “health promotion/management” instead of “wellbeing”. Employee wellbeing is about the subjective views of employees, which take into account a wide variety of dimensions at work such as physical, material, social, emotional, developmental and environmental concerns.

In short, this is the self-described happiness of workers that Wright and his colleagues have tested in their happy-productive worker thesis.

In contrast, health promotion and management refers to a broad range of programme components that offer people a variety of options to improve their health.

These can include gym membership discounts, cycle-to-work schemes, on-site lifestyle education, employee assistance programmes and healthy canteen options. While these kinds of programmes have their place in the organisation and play an important role in attracting staff in the first place, evidence that they really have a positive impact on the bottom line is scarce, largely owing to the fact that they bear little relevance to the psychological wellbeing of staff that Wright and his colleagues attest to. Perhaps predictably, the often seductive claims made by providers of such benefits can be somewhat dubious.

How can this path to disappointment be best avoided? There are two different types of programme and they need to be approached very differently.

Defining goals and delivering benefits

It is important to be clear at the outset what it is that organisations want from a wellbeing programme in terms of business deliverables and to be honest and up front about this. If the programme falls more into the health promotion/management bracket, then it should be positioned as such, and vague expectations regarding impact on corporate performance should be avoided.

quotemarksIt is important to be clear at the outset what it is that organisations want from a wellbeing programme in terms of business deliverables.”

On the other hand, if there is a genuine desire at senior management level to enhance performance through improved employee wellbeing, then the exact business performance indicators that are on the company’s list to tackle through the scheme must be articulated clearly and precisely.

Be prepared to take a long, hard look at the factors in the workplace that might be affecting people’s wellbeing and having a possible impact on the stated organisational outcomes.

Most importantly, companies must be willing to take action to address problems that might be found. These might not fit neatly with an off-the-shelf solution but might require more systematic modifications of particular working practices.

To illustrate this point, a recent NHS hospital, frustrated that various health promotion schemes were having no impact on absence levels, decided on a more radical path to examine how nurses’ work affected their wellbeing and sickness patterns.

Results showed that the main predictors of absence were directly related to factors such as working patterns and scrubs, which demanded a more far-reaching range of interventions than previously envisaged.

In summary, there is a keen and very significant link between wellbeing and performance.

But don’t be surprised if your yoga classes at lunch time or wellbeing intranet portal fail to deliver on performance measures if more fundamental issues with work and job design are left to fester.

If these latter issues are left unchecked, employee wellbeing will not become the enduring tool for managers that it has the potential to be.

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

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