Measuring what works: workplace well-being

By Michael Whitmore and Chris van Stolk, RAND Europe

Poor health and well-being is costing the UK economy up to £57 billion a year in lost productivity. Productivity losses at work occur through a combination of absenteeism, employees not being at work, and presenteeism, employees being at work but working at a sub-optimal level. In the UK, organisations have productivity losses of 9.3 per cent due to absenteeism and presenteeism. At the same time, healthy, highly engaged employees are, on average, up to 30 days more productive.

These findings are a result of RAND Europe’s survey for VitalityHealth on Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, which provides unique perspectives on the well-being and productivity of the UK’s workforce. A total of 169 organisations took part in the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, with 34,000 employees providing responses. As part of this initiative, we also interviewed ten of the most improved organisations, the majority of respondents being HR professionals, to understand how strategies and activities influence well-being and productivity. Many of the organisations included were small and medium-sized organisations, demonstrating that improving health and well-being is not just something for large multinationals.

Measuring well-being is beneficial in two broad ways. Firstly, the boards of companies can use the information from the survey to establish well-being leads and strategies, targeting those areas of staff well-being and engagement most in need. Secondly, individual employees receive an easy-to-understand Vitality Age score, which provides an estimated age for the individual based on a correlation between measures of a number of risk factors and health and well-being. The resultant score may be above or below a person’s actual calendar age. As part of a personalised report, the feedback allows individuals to take positive action to improve their own health and well-being, driving up employee well-being as a whole. 

The results from the employee survey show that 79 per cent of organisations that take part in Britain’s Healthiest Workplace improve their well-being year-on-year, while 53 per cent of individuals conducting the assessment year-on-year improve their Vitality Age score. This allows staff and boardrooms alike to benchmark against each other and talk a common language. 

Speaking with organisations shown to be ‘most improved’ under Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, a key aspect was found in the way that senior leaders strongly role modelled staff wellbeing. For some organisations, this involved establishing businesses from the outset on principles of staff well-being as part of the workplace culture. In others, leaders participated in charity runs, or were seen participating in physical exercise or staff mental health awareness sessions as part of their workplace lifestyles. 

Supporting the mental health needs of employees in the workplace has become increasingly important in recent years. From previous research in the UK, it is clear that the impact of mental health both in the home and in the workplace is enormous. Up to 40 per cent of the UK workforce’s sickness absence is due to mental ill health, with one in six working aged people experiencing mental ill health at any given time. However, only 25 per cent of people with mental ill health needing mental health services have access to them. 

The majority of the companies interviewed as part of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace have introduced staff well-being programmes to help employees proactively maintain a good level of mental health. Organisations are focusing on the individual as a whole and how they can be supported to maximise performance in and out of the workplace and optimise their energy levels. A wide set of professionals that include those from learning and development, HR, Occupational Health and Safety and Health and Environment are coming together to establish and support initiatives designed to improve the mental health of employees. As a starting point for organisations looking to address mental health problems among staff, it is important to recognise the key drivers that cause anxiety, depression and other mental ill health conditions, as this can help them to create a more balanced approached to well-being strategies. 

In addition, a number of policy recommendations from RAND Europe research on how to improve the mental health outcomes of UK employees are currently being tested by the UK government. This includes computerised cognitive behavioural therapies, embedded vocational support and telephone-based psychological support.

From the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, we are also aware of wider health issues in the workplace. Eighty per cent of staff reported at least one muscular skeletal condition, while 73 per cent reported to have at least one form of work-related stress. Half said that this stress was due to unrealistic time pressure and demands, while 31 per cent said it was due to not being consulted about change in the workplace. Additionally five per cent of employees said they were bullied on a frequent basis, with 15 per cent stating that they had been bullied at some point in the previous 12 months. 

As well as specific health conditions, other lifestyle factors were reported by respondents. For instance, 30 per cent of those surveyed stated that they received inadequate amounts of sleep, while 25 per cent reported to have experienced financial concerns.  As we know that these particular lifestyle factors often impact on lower well-being scores in general, we feel it is important for companies to attend to the increasing staff need on these two particular issues, which are often more prevalent within certain staff cohorts. For example, employees that work irregular hours are more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation.

In summary, it is clear that the link between productivity and well-being is recognised and increasingly accepted as a pre-requisite of a strong employer and employee brand. Organisations are going beyond just focusing on outcomes and productivity, and are looking at how they can grow and retain their talent to bring out the best in their abilities. 

Well-being is recognised by organisations to be as important as sustainability or corporate responsibility. HR professionals and CEOs believe that high employee well-being means high staff engagement and a real intention to do well for the workforce.  The bottom line is that it pays to have a healthy heart and open mind when it comes to staff well-being. 

For organisations looking to start on the journey to improving staff well-being, there are three simple messages:

  • Measure what gets done and its impact;
  • Align emotional and physical health; and
  • Start with what matters to people to deliver what matters to business.

Chris van Stolk is the vice president at RAND Europe and Michael Whitmore is a consulting senior research fellow at RAND Europe. Both are involved in RAND Europe’s research on health and work including mental health and wellbeing. Contact details: stolk@rand.org  and mwhitmore@rand.org

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