Occupational health and HR need to forge a genuine partnership if wellbeing is ever to get the priority, and investment, it needs at boardroom level, a major new report has suggested. Nic Paton spoke to organisational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper to get the lowdown.
Employers need to ensure health and wellbeing has a proper, strategic voice at the boardroom table, and occupational health and HR need to work together much more closely as partners if they want to be serious about embedding a genuine ‘wellbeing culture’ across their organisations.
That’s the view of leading organisational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, who spoke to OHW+ following the publication of a report urging employers to get much more proactive around measuring employee wellbeing.
The report, Measuring Wellbeing For Healthy Workers and Organisations, by the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work and Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) argued that, for employers to successfully implement a strategy that improves subjective wellbeing (in other words, how employees feel, function and evaluate their lives), business leaders must focus as much on the measurement of wellbeing in the workplace as they do on the implementation wellbeing initiatives.
Health and wellbeing voice on the board
One key way to ensuring wellbeing is being prioritised, and properly and consistently measured, is to make sure it has a presence on the board, argues Sir Cary. To that end, Dr Richard Heron, former chief medical officer for BP, led a team at the forum to develop a range of wellbeing metrics included within the report.
“If we’re going to make health and wellbeing a strategic issue, like for example gender pay equality, then it has become a board issue,” Sir Cary tells OHW+.
“To do that, first, we have to know what are the metrics that tells us, an organisation, from the outside and the inside what good wellbeing looks like. Or bad wellbeing,” he adds.
“We recommend a non-executive director for employee health and wellbeing on the board of every company in the country. The NHS already has that; it is the first organisation in the country to do it. On every board of every hospital. But we need that in the private sector; we don’t have it,” Sir Cary says.
Although approximately 40% of big organisations do have a director of health and wellbeing who reports to an HR director, chief medical officer or chief executive, Sir Cary estimates, that still means 60% do not.
“We need that on the senior leadership team because that is the person who will operationalise whatever is going wrong or whatever is going right that the board level perceives by looking at the metrics,” he explains.
“If you have a non-executive director for employee health and wellbeing on the board, they have the metrics, which can be discussed quarterly and looked at. If, for example, this shows that employee satisfaction has dropped by 25% in three months, you can then break the data down and identify where in the business this is happening.
“That person then goes to the director of health and wellbeing and says, ‘help, tell the board what you are doing about that because this is a problem’. Or maybe it is that employee turnover is high. Or you finding about Generation Z and millennials are leaving in big numbers. Why? What can we do about it?” says Sir Cary.
Beyond ‘fresh fruit Fridays’
The report also argued that it is important to differentiate subjective wellbeing from its underlying drivers. These include external factors such as employment status, income and social networks, and internal factors such as health and self-esteem.
It is not just all about the environment – toxins in the work environment. Employers need somebody within OH who sees much more the significance of this [wellbeing] as a strategic issue.” – Professor Sir Cary Cooper
Equally, business leaders should choose metrics that are simple and easy to understand, drawn from robust data sources and relevant to both internal and external stakeholders. Subjective wellbeing assessments can then be integrated within existing, periodic employee surveys to provide a snapshot of employee sentiment.
More widely, if organisations are serious about creating a ‘wellbeing culture’, this has to go well beyond ‘fresh fruit Fridays’ or lunchtime mindfulness sessions or even simply access to mental health first aid or an employee assistance programme.
As Sir Cary explains: “A wellbeing culture is not mindfulness at lunch. The main core parts of it are: do we have the right line managers (who have enough emotional intelligence) throughout the organisation, from shop floor to top floor? Do we have a long working hours’ culture? Do we have high levels of sickness absence and where and why? Do we have an EAP for people who are not coping? Are you looking at mental health? What is your support system like?
“With mental health first aid, you need to be asking questions such as ‘is it effective?’, ‘is the training good enough?’; ‘anybody who wants to can become a mental health first aider, but is that right, or is it dangerous to allow it to be open to anybody?’; ‘what is your selection like?’,” he adds.
Pivotal role for occupational health
The role of occupational health is pivotal in embedding this cultural seachange, Sir Cary argues. “From an occupational health point of view, this is big time. Occupational health, in my view, has led the charge where HR has, often, gone along with it.
“Employers should ensure that, whoever heads occupational health in the organisation, is somebody who understands the wellbeing phenomena. It is not just all about the environment – toxins in the work environment, for example. Employers need somebody within OH who sees much more the significance of this as a strategic issue,” Sir Cary emphasises.
“What occupational health has to do is ensure that, whatever you’re doing, it is a board issue. Whether you have OH internally delivered through an occupational physician or medic, or you are contracting it in in from outside, you must make it a board issue.
“We have to look at our line managers; we have to do all this stuff, in conjunction with HR. It is a partnership now. We’re now needing a different kind of occupational physician than we had 30 years ago, one attuned to the importance of psychological issues within the workplace,” he adds.
“Number one, let’s make this a strategic issue. OH and HR should jointly be looking at health and wellbeing and helping to support a NED [non-executive director] at the top,” Sir Cary concludes.
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“Number two, occupational health and HR have to get together; they have to be partners in this campaign. That is what the future is. As functions, OH and HR need to be totally linked together in terms of policies and strategic orientation.”