Employee well-being: a ‘nice to have’ or a business imperative?

by Rachel Suff, CIPD Adviser, Employee Relations

Employee health and well-being has risen sharply up the workplace agenda over the past decade, with many HR and business leaders recognising that investment in this area can reap benefits for the organisation as well as for employees. However, our just-published 2015 Absence Management survey report, in partnership with Simplyhealth, reveals some mixed findings in terms of how employers approach well-being. Half of respondents think that employee well-being is on senior leaders’ agendas and that line managers are bought into the importance of well-being but, conversely, half told us that operational demands take precedence over employee well-being considerations.

Why is health and well-being viewed as a priority by some organisations but slips off the agenda for others? The finding from our 2015 survey that operational demands take precedence over employee well-being considerations for half of the sample is revealing: yes, organisations competing in today’s often ruthlessly competitive economic environment do face a host of competing challenges. But the finding also tells us a lot about how many employers continue to view employee health and well-being – not as a strategic priority and a potential source of future competitive advantage but as an ‘add on’ or ‘nice-to-have’ activity.

This perspective is reinforced by other survey findings: just 8% of organisations have a stand-alone well-being strategy in support of their wider corporate strategy (although this rises to 16% of employers with more than 5,000 employees), while just a fifth have a well-being plan/programme as part of their wider people strategy.

Employee well-being and engagement: key pieces of the same jigsaw
Organisations are more likely to realise the benefits of a healthier workforce if they link their well-being programme to corporate goals, rather than developing a series of initiatives that are not joined up or linked to the needs of its own workforce. The downside of not paying attention to employee health and well-being – including high levels of long-term sickness, low engagement, presenteeism and high training costs due to turnover – is well documented. Where the business case needs further development is in understanding the potential benefits of long-term investment in employee well-being. One area where the evidence is already strong is the link between employee well-being and employee engagement.

The CIPD, with Affinity Health at Work, has undertaken research on why health and well-being are vital to sustaining engagement. We found that it is the combination of employee engagement together with health and well-being that enables performance outcomes to be sustainable over time. It points to research by Towers Watson showing that highly engaged individuals with high levels of well-being are the most productive and happiest employees. Highly engaged employees with low levels of well-being, meanwhile, tend towards high levels of productivity but are more likely to leave their organisations and to experience high levels of burnout.

Holistic health and well-being
Traditionally, the term ‘employee well-being’ has often been translated by employers into specific initiatives that are unlikely to be linked to business strategy. But if we set a more aspirational agenda for organisations, the impact for individuals and business could be significantly greater. Health and well-being is not just about one-off initiatives, it’s about aspiring to position employee well-being as a continuous thread that runs through the organisation.

Some HR professionals will remember Dame Carol Black’s ground-breaking review of the health of Britain’s working-age population, ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’. The review firmly positioned the workplace as playing a key role in promoting the nation’s health and well-being, and advocated a new, ‘holisitic’ approach to health and wellbeing at work.

The CIPD and Simplyhealth 2015 Absence Management survey, covering 1.5 million employees, identified considerable variation in the extent to which organisations’ health and well-being activity embraces an holistic approach, and the extent to which it is designed to promote good physical health, good lifestyle choices and good mental health. Overall, nearly half of organisations with well-being activities focus equally on all three aspects.

South Liverpool Homes invests in well-being
Our survey report highlights the case of South Liverpool Homes (SLH) that has put in place an holistic health and well-being programme that is fully integrated into the business. The project began in 2013 by talking to colleagues about well-being. It was clear that people wanted a greater choice of offerings and people highlighted a number of areas which were outside of the typical initiatives associated with a well-being programme, including wider employment practice such as policies, terms and conditions and the benefits package. SLH extended the scope of well-being into its overall people approach and how it operates as a business more generally, realising that this was how a focus on well-being would become part and parcel of what SLH is all about.

At SLH it was key that the whole business ‘owned’ the focus on well-being: the chief executive and head of HR and organisational development were key project members, and staff forum representatives acted as champions for the review. There were also mini surveys, drop-in sessions and team meetings. SLH took a phased approach to implementation to make sure that any ‘quick wins’ could be immediately implemented, while longer-term improvements that require more attention to detail and further exploration get the attention they need.

The major objective of SLH’s project was to improve the health and well-being of its colleagues; the organisation knew that investment in this area would, in turn, then benefit the business, helping retain our talented staff, thereby increasing staff productivity, and ultimately providing a great service to the South Liverpool community.

The impact so far has included:

  • sickness absence for the period September 2013 – March 2014 decreased 54% in comparison with the same period 12 months earlier (September 2012 – March 2013) resulting in a cost saving of £25,000 to SLH
  • in March 2015 SLH retained first place in the Sunday Times 100 ‘Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For’ list • in achieving IIP Gold status in November 2013, the assessor evidenced ‘flexibility in terms of support, evidence of compassionate managers and wellbeing events linked to reduced sickness’
  • overall, customer satisfaction has increased to 90% since the revision of the SLH well-being offer
  • SLH took the top spot in the ‘Best Health and Well-being Initiative’ category at the 2014 CIPD People Management Awards.

The role of employers
UK workplaces can play an important role in improving people’s well-being through health promotion and ill health prevention activities, for example by early detection of some ill-health symptoms and by encouraging lifestyle changes. As the wider economic environment is becoming more unpredictable and challenging for organisations and employees, so the imperative to mitigate the effect on people’s health is becoming stronger. The ageing workforce and poor productivity performance are just two factors pointing to the urgent need for investment in organisational health and well-being.

The CIPD is embarking on a long-term project on employee health and well-being. We believe that a strategic approach to the well-being of people is fundamental to achieving better work and working lives. While great strides have been made in the workplace health and well-being agenda in recent years, there is still a practice gap and HR and business leaders have a vital part to play in closing the gap if people, organisations and society are to fully realise the benefits of a healthy working-age population. Our health and well-being programme will build on the considerable research and guidance that CIPD and others have already published in this area, and we look forward to collaborating with our members on this important work.

Rachel Suff

Rachel Suff

Employment Relations and Diversity Adviser (Europe)

I have joined the CIPD as Employment Relations and Diversity Adviser (Europe), a new role to develop the CIPD’s public policy work in the EU. I will be building a strategic network of EU officials and other stakeholders to increase the CIPD’s profile on key public policy objectives. The role also involves working closely with CIPD members, particularly those with global/European responsibilities, to ensure that their views inform CIPD policy thinking on EU issues such as migration, youth employment and employment relations. I will be commissioning research, contributing to press and publications and taking part in conferences and events.


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New research

Produced in partnership with Simplyhealth, this report sets out the findings of the CIPD’s sixteenth national survey of absence management trends, policy and practice.


Media spot

Our podcast looks at how and why employers should tackle the root causes of mental health problems and foster good mental health. We hear from John Binns, a well-being and personal resilience adviser, about his personal experience of poor mental health and Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk and former Minister of State at the Department of Health, also gives insight into the work he did as minister to promote mental health support and gives his opinion on the economic and social case for why employers should make this a priority.