Insight 2 February 2020

Is employee wellbeing a waste of time?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen dozens of column inches devoted to health and wellbeing, the latest workplace obsession. Conversations on the topic have dominated seminars, podcasts and the press in almost every sector.

But for all the chatter, one thing remains clear: looking after people’s wellbeing makes good business sense. Research has consistently shown the quantitative cost benefits of a healthy workforce. A report from PwC calculates that UK workers take an average of 9.1 sick days annually, costing employers almost £29 billion per year.

Further, Deloitte estimates that for every £1 spent on workforce mental health initiatives, organisations see an average return on investment of £4.20, with the most effective initiatives saving up to £9 per £1 spent. Eager to reap these attractive financial benefits, many organisations have fallen in line, initiating their own programmes to keep workers happy and healthy.

What’s not working with wellbeing

If improving employee wellbeing is really an untapped antidote for sagging bottom lines, then why aren’t we seeing more success stories about it? Even for companies making the effort, employees remain unaware or ambivalent about employers’ wellbeing offerings. Researchers at the RAND Corporation, an American policy think tank, reported that less than one-fifth of employees take advantage of workplace wellness initiatives available to them through their employer.

One of the key barriers that organisations face in implementing meaningful wellbeing programmes is the elusive nature of the concept. What does wellbeing mean in the context of a particular organisation’s culture, workforce and strategic priorities? And who ‘owns’ the wellbeing agenda – HR, QHSE, Finance, Property? In many cases, ownership is shared, and as businesses struggle to meet the varying expectations of these stakeholders, the result is a smorgasbord of wellness initiatives that include anything from no- smoking programmes to standing desks. Furthermore, companies aren’t asking themselves what they intend to achieve through such initiatives, other than simply saving money, e.g.: “What would a successful wellbeing programme look like at our company? When would we know we had achieved it?”

As a result, initiatives are often just ‘pushed’ onto employees and the choice to participate is left up to individuals. But employees aren’t buying it – it’s easy for them to see when their business is genuinely passionate about an issue, and when it’s simply paying lip service. In the case of wellbeing, perhaps, offerings have been created with limited (if any) employee consultation, with the final result bearing little resemblance to the actual needs of the workforce, just serving to ‘tick the box’ in the short term. In these instances, wellbeing has been deemed by executives to be a ‘nice to have’, rather than of critical strategic importance.

Making wellbeing work better

To move beyond this approach and deliver a programme that truly addresses the needs of employees, employers need to think bigger – taking a holistic view of wellbeing that starts with the workplace itself. Harsh fluorescent lighting and stale recirculated air are all too common. in offices and hardly conducive for producing quality work.

Poor environmental conditions negatively impact employees, ranging from cognitive problems such as reduced concentration and productivity to health problems like headaches and respiratory issues.

Initiatives like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification (part of the US Green Building Council), or the WELL Building Standard are helping organisations rethink building design with occupant health in mind. Unsurprisingly, technology is playing a major role in this shift, with sensor technology enabling real-time monitoring of conditions like lighting and air quality, ensuring that they are optimised at all times. Nutrition, as well, is taking a prominent place on wellbeing agendas as companies begin to recognise the benefits of a healthy catering offer to increasingly calorie-conscious employees – more energy, better focus and even improved morale, just to name a few.

Nevertheless, even the most carefully crafted programme can be dismantled by an organisational culture at odds with the ethos of wellbeing. Research conducted by Virgin Pulse showed that most CEOs and senior executives are coming to the realisation that wellbeing is important to organisational culture, not just a cost-saver – but these aren’t necessarily the people who need to be convinced.

Middle management has an arguably more important role to play in promoting employee wellbeing, as they are normally in closer contact with the wider workforce and therefore have a stronger influence on day-to-day culture. While managers may, in principle, believe in the importance of wellbeing, operational challenges and pressures often take precedence, leaving the potential of any wellbeing programme unfulfilled. For a wellbeing strategy to be truly effective, senior executives can’t simply buy in to it – they need to send a clear signal throughout the organisation that wellbeing is a priority, on par with any other business activity.

Top tips for building a winning Wellbeing stratgey

Create a wellbeing programme

  • Ditch the one-size-fits-all approach and engage with your organisation’s employees to understand their specific needs, instead of simply buying a solution off the shelf. Consider the ‘art of the possible’ first before worrying about budget. Doing so will help you see your employees’ actual wellbeing priorities, allowing you to craft a solution that works for your people and will entice them to take advantage of it.

Improve working environments

  • Changing the physical workspace doesn’t mean starting from scratch or undertaking a complete refurbishment of your offices. Even small changes can make a big difference, such as the addition of a collaborative working area, access to standing desks or revising the catering offer to include more healthy options. Likewise, technology, such as environmental sensors, is becoming increasingly affordable to purchase and install. These provide you more control of your facilities and optimised working conditions for employees.

Identify success benchmarks

  • Before implementing a wellbeing programme, clearly define its ownership within your organisation – whether that’s a single department or collaboration between several – and develop a strategy for ensuring that all stakeholders achieve their respective objectives. Then, identify the measurable outcomes that would signify your programme’s success. As well as bottom line cost savings, these might include employee participation goals within the first year or the establishment of an employer/employee wellbeing committee.

At its core, wellbeing is simply about making sure people are happy and healthy enough to do their best work. This should be the guiding principle for any company, whether those embarking on the wellbeing journey for the first time, or those taking another look at the support they give employees.

The high price of doing nothing

Annual cost of poor mental health among UK workers:

  • £42bn cost to UK employers
  • £99bn cost to UK economy
  • £27bn cost to UK Government

Find out more

If you’re looking to create a happier, healthier workforce, Mitie’s team of experts can help. We’ll create a customised wellbeing strategy that will improve working conditions and ensure you get the best from your people, every day.

The research presented in this article has been conducted by Mitie as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Sheffield Hallam University.

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