Wellbeing in the workplace

By Paul Litchfield, What Works Centre for Wellbeing, BT Group plc

Wellbeing at work is about much more than fruit on desks and subsidised gym memberships. Too often we say “wellbeing” but we hear “health” or “fitness” and the topic is swiftly passed out of the mainstream to specialists in those disciplines. Wellbeing is a broad concept that most people understand - how we are doing as individuals or communities. However, the debate about what precisely constitutes wellbeing has been complicated by the different approaches taken by those from backgrounds in social sciences, life sciences and humanities. The UK Office for National Statistics has sought to bring these elements together in a framework comprising ten dimensions of wellbeing that aim to capture the key elements that represent quality of life. The drivers for individual wellbeing have been described by many but have common themes in relationships, education, employment, security (financial and physical) and health, among others. Richard Layard and David Clark¹ have usefully calculated average weightings for these different factors in terms of predicting life satisfaction and health, employment and marital status emerge as the strongest influences.

Work and health therefore have a significant bearing on the wellbeing of people in an organisation. Most employers would see promoting the wellbeing of their people as a good thing to do in its own right. However, when prioritising resources, such sentiments can get “bumped” by business critical issues like productivity, profitability and customer service. Making the case for wellbeing in the workplace therefore requires a linkage with hard operational benefits and cannot rely just on goodwill.

The business case for wellbeing at work is still evolving and the evidence synthesis being undertaken in this area by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing should bring more clarity. Control of costs is a hallmark of a well-run business and sickness absence rates have been used for many years as an indicator of workforce health. In practice the correlation between sickness absence and health is weaker than might be expected but is stronger for wellbeing because the work element of life satisfaction is a powerful determinant of attendance. Put simply, people with exactly the same medical conditions can have very different sickness absence records and the difference is largely explained by how they feel about their lives and their work. Reducing sickness absence has a direct impact on the bottom line for a business through less sick pay and multiple indirect savings. An increasing number of organisations recognise that a traditional regime of harsh sanctions for short term absences coupled with a medical approach for extended spells has only a limited impact. Enlightened companies are looking at the employment proposition through a wellbeing lens and taking account of psychological and social issues as well as those more directly related to health. Policies are aligned to capitalise on synergies and solutions are tailored for individual absence cases to maximise the chances of securing an early and effective return to work.

Cost control is important but it will not, of itself, create a successful business. Improved performance in terms of productivity and innovation is crucial in our fast moving knowledge based economy. The UK consistently lags behind other developed economies in terms of productivity and the gap is widening. Addressing issues such as investment, infrastructure and skills are key building blocks in driving up productivity but focussing on worker wellbeing can also impact on economic output and potentially offers a faster and less costly solution. The links between performance, engagement and wellbeing are now established and it is wellbeing that renders productivity improvements sustainable in the longer term.

How then should organisations address the issue of wellbeing in the workplace? For many the starting point will be health and the avoidance of harm since those are concepts now embedded in most companies. From there the next step is to recognise health as an integral part of wellbeing, which encapsulates all the elements of a successful employee proposition. Health (and indeed safety) is then naturally subsumed into core human resources business, as much as training, reward or employee relations, and not outsourced as purely a transactional service. Public health has a long and successful history of effecting behavioural change in populations and proven techniques can be applied across the whole of workplace wellbeing. The key is having a clear but simple framework of primary prevention, early intervention and effective restitution. That framework has been adapted to create the basis for “good work” in the European Telecommunications sector. Those guidelines reflect the view that wellbeing is a continuum with damaged people at one end and thriving communities at the other.

Western society has become much more individualist over the past 50 years. The line between self-sufficiency and selfishness has become blurred and risks previously managed collectively have been transferred to individuals. Many organisations are colluding in that behaviour when they focus only on encouraging employees to eat healthily, get fit, become resilient or adopt mindfulness techniques. These are good things to do but, on their own, they are not enough. Employers have a legal duty to organise work in a way that avoids harm and they have a moral duty to organise work in a way that promotes the wellbeing of their people. The evidence base for how to do that effectively is not yet perfect but there is enough knowledge available to make a start and if we share learning we can improve as we go along. Companies that take the lead in this area will reap the commercial benefits of higher productivity. Perhaps more importantly, they will be making a valuable contribution to society because workers don’t leave their wellbeing at the factory gate.

¹ Richard Layard & David Clark. Thrive. Penguin Books. London. 2014.

Read Financial well-being needs to become part of well-being at work strategy

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  • Interesting Blog, and I don't disagree with anything on here in principal, however it's rich coming from someone who works for a company who's 'working together' programme, fly's in the face of everything that has been highlighted as positive in this blog.

    Enforced relocation, additional commuting times of 7.5hrs a week (90mins a day) deemed as 'reasonable' to add to an employees commute (the week before Christmas, the employees in Manchester were told, 'on your return in the new year you will be located in either Liverpool or Leeds' depending on where you live),  people forced to take up jobs they have zero skills in (in a very technology based, skilled  environment) and have no inclination towards, simply because of where they live, or told if you are not prepared to travel to one of our 23 buildings across the UK then you will be a 'field engineer' (no matter about age, gender, physical ability, or skills). Not to mention the companies 'associated' additional carbon footprint from forcing so many staff to travel 1000's of unnecessary miles each year, buy cars they didn't need before, just to attend and sit in one single building, even though they still work in their individual teams. All this from the business who not only has people promoting 'wellbeing' but actively encourages others to work remotely, be more 'diverse' in location and builds its reputation on 'enabling' people to do exactly what they are preventing their own employees from doing.

    The height of hypocrisy.  

  • Very good article. I see too often the organisation of shift work and the pressure to do overtime leaves little time for employees to think about exercise and healthy eating but these organisations continue to pay for 'health MOT's' which tell these employees that they are overweight etc, shifting the responsibility to the employee - in reality these initiatives attract the worried well. The money would be better spent doing the basics of allowing recovery time between shifts so their employees feel energised and engaged with their work instead of tired and fed up. The quick wins often seem to be the priority in health and wellbeing initiatives instead of a longer term strategy which benefits all.

  • Productivity is an important goal, but there are other benefits of wellbeing worth chasing, particularly if attitude and psychological health is taken into account and those drive behaviours that deliver better or even great customer service.

    So how employees are treated by peers and their managers, the respect, dignity and inclusion they experience in the moment, are inextricably linked with well-being and with choices that those individuals make, at each moment in their working day, to go that little bit extra, in service of their customer - whether internal or external.