Are you missing the point of health and wellbeing at work?

August 23, 2017

health and wellbeing at work

Employee health and wellbeing is one of the biggest areas of focus for HR departments all over the world, and for good reason. A CIPD factsheet states that investing in health and wellbeing at work can lead to greater resilience, innovation and productivity. It also explains that HR professionals should play a pivotal role in steering the health and wellbeing agenda.

Yet despite what we know about the importance of health and wellbeing, many strategies and initiatives seem to fall dead in the water. And I think this is because too many companies expect a quick fix – and many are looking at the whole thing from the totally wrong perspective.

Before I go any further, I feel like I should mention that while I will be talking a lot about the link between wellbeing, costs and productivity… if you’re only concerned about wellbeing because of the cost implications, then you’re probably destined for failure anyway.

It’s not just about reducing absences

A couple of years ago, we produced an infographic highlighting the most common reasons why employees are off work sick. At the time of publishing the figures, it was estimated that 27 million days a year were lost to minor illnesses like coughs and colds. This information is both important, and actionable.

But does it mean all our wellbeing strategies should focus on reducing absenteeism? I think not. If your only goal is to keep more bottoms on seats, then you may well be missing the point.

According to Mates In Mind, sickness absence costs companies £8.4 billion every year. But ‘presenteeism’ is a more costly issue, accounting for 1.5 times the cost of absenteeism. In other words, if your only focus is on making sure people come to work – rather than how they’re getting along while at work – then you could have a health and wellbeing crisis on your hands. A crisis that rarely shows itself, and that quietly drains your coffers through lost productivity.

Wellbeing is the solution to poor productivity

The Healthiest Workplace study, sponsored by Vitality, says that the cost of lost productivity due to poor health and wellbeing in the UK, currently stands at around £57 billion. It’s also interesting to note that:

  • There is a clear North-South divide, with stress levels highest in Yorkshire and the Humber
  • The public sector has the most reports of stress, depression and financial hardship
  • People with inflexible hours or longer commutes tend to be less productive and in poorer health

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. The study discovered a strong correlation between participation in workplace programmes, and improved health and productivity. It also found that if you are nurturing a healthy and highly engaged workforce, then each of your employees will be around 30 days more productive each year – which, to me, sounds like a very worthwhile investment.

Most wellbeing initiatives don’t work – here’s why

If your thoughts right now go something like this: “I already tried a discounted gym membership, and it did nothing”, then I have news for you. Short, temporary wellbeing initiatives are not likely to make significant impact.

Employees can see through one-off initiatives, viewing them as token gestures” says Louise Flowers, Director of Customer Delivery at Healthcare RM. “Implementing a hastily put together scheme won’t suddenly improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of staff.

Luckily, Healthcare RM also publishes some very sound advice. And it mostly boils down to planning, persistence, and flexibility:

  1. Identify health demographics of your workforce. If you don’t know where your employees are struggling most, then how do you know which schemes are going to make the biggest impact?
  2. Design a long-term programme. Don’t think about short-term gains. Consider your long-term aims – and design a plan that will help you continue moving in those directions.
  3. Provide employees with a choice. Many wellbeing initiatives don’t work because employees don’t know they exist – or because you aren’t offering the right schemes. By providing a choice, employees will be able to select the plan that they know will help them the most.

Physical wellness seems a popular place to start

A quick Twitter survey told me that good physical health is a popular starting point for many wellness initiatives. For example, Camilla Ley Valentin, CCO of Queue-it, always treats employees to free fruit and snacks (plus champagne celebrations whenever she can think of an excuse!)

For energy comparison website Love Energy Savings, physical health is an important part of their wider culture and wellbeing strategy – and in April 2016, they opened their impressive on-site gym.

LoveEnergySavings Gym

We’ve kitted out our home with a purpose-built gym, boasting state-of-the-art equipment” says Mike Edwards, Head of People. “On top of this, we reward staff for being brilliant with regular pizza parties, an extra day holiday each year on each employee’s birthday, weekly circuit-training classes, and free fresh fruit delivered direct to their desks.

Mike believes that their investment in their people seriously pays off with a culture that cannot be replicated. He says that people are happy, and it shows through results. The company has noticed a big boost to productivity. And what’s more, a recent employee survey revealed that 89% of their employees believed that the business truly cared about their welfare.

But don’t ignore the invisible epidemic of mental illness

Physical wellness is far easier to measure and detect. It’s easy to see if employees are coughing or sneezing. It’s easy to see if somebody is overweight or underweight. And it’s nearly always easy to see who’s sleeping on the job. But mental illnesses aren’t always quite so easy to spot – yet they can have a serious impact on a person’s ability to work.

Mental health charity Mind puts the cost of mental health-related presenteeism at £15.1 billion, which is around £605 per employee in the UK. But while the price of mental illness in the workplace is very real, Simon Crew, in an opinion he wrote for CIPD, says that no business should formulate a mental health strategy purely around cost.

Simon is a consultant at Xerox HR Services, who has direct past experience with depression in the workplace. He recommends that companies include initiatives that support emotional resilience. He writes that a multi-faceted wellbeing strategy with a detailed focus on mental health is no longer a nice to have, but a must-have.

If you’re serious about your wellbeing strategy, then check out Mind’s list of free, helpful resources for companies who are trying to support mental wellbeing in the workforce.

Increase participation by making making wellness initiatives more fun

Earlier, I mentioned how there is a strong correlation between participation in workplace programmes, and improved health and productivity. So how do you make sure employees are actually aware of your programmes, and actively participating? For HR Director Kaitlyn, from online voice talent marketplace, it’s about introducing a twist of fun and excitement.

Step challenges, plank challenges, push up challenges, and even daily water consumption challenges, have resulted in high participation” Kaitlyn explains. “It’s a fun way to bring wellness into the workplace. The main focus here is to bring awareness to our health, in the hope that it will spark inspiration for employees to do more for themselves. But it also benefits us by promoting interdepartmental collaboration, that may not otherwise take place.

Kaitlyn is a fine example of an HR director who is not afraid to put her money where her mouth is. have their own dedicated Wellness Committee, responsible for overseeing the purchase of healthy snacks and the organisation of things like ‘run clubs’, that promote physical activity during the warmer months.

Is your health and wellbeing strategy working?

I’d love to hear your stories of health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace – both successes and failures. It’s how we’ll learn from each other, and how we’ll get closer to becoming a community where people are cared for and respected by their employers.

I’d really appreciate a quick comment using the box below. You can either create a free account, or simply sign in using Twitter, Facebook or Google.

Stay ahead with HR

Get free HR insights, expert tips and exclusive interviews, and start making more impact at work

Please enter a valid email address

See People HR in action

View our short video demo

Get started absolutely free

No credit card required

Talk with an expert to learn how People HR could help your organisation