Ticking the box or meeting the need?

Businesses are now attuned to the importance of wellbeing, and employee wellbeing programmes are becoming ubiquitous. Whether it’s yoga at lunch time, smoothies for breakfast, or fruit on Fridays, most organisations are now giving wellbeing the nod.

However, do a free banana and a neck massage really meet the needs of employees?

“Don’t completely diss the fruit bowl,” says Julie Fitzgerald, Z Energy’s Talent Manager, “It’s a visible sign to employees that, ‘Yes, I care about you’. But if you have a fruit bowl in a culture where people are under-resourced, overworked and stressed, the extra Vitamin C isn’t going to help employees.”

As Emily Reynolds states in the Guardian, “For those experiencing severe or chronic mental health problems, such initiatives are not just ineffective but also profoundly insulting, failing to meaningfully engage in any of the realities of mental illness at all. If you’re so depressed you’re finding it hard to go to work, for example, you don’t need a smoothie or a free flat white: you need structured support from mental health professionals and paid time off.”

Reynolds claims that many companies are using the vague and foggy “wellbeing” umbrella to mask what essentially amounts to a glorified set of employee perks.

Do we need to rethink the way we work? 

It is generally accepted that it is up to the individual to keep him or herself physically and mentally healthy.  But research is increasingly finding that our jobs and working environments are contributing to our poor health.

Health and Wellbeing consultant Kim Knight says the modern workplace has such demanding expectations of employees that it causes people to “break the laws of health”, which has consequences for their health and wellbeing. She says stress is the root of most illnesses.

Massey University’s Healthy Work Group has launched the New Zealand Workplace Barometer, a longitudinal study that aims to identify the effects of our working environments, specifically the psychosocial risk factors in our workplaces and how those risk factors impact employee wellbeing and organisational performance.

Co-director Dr Bevan Catley says New Zealand has long been pre-occupied with physical risks – and for good reason given high profile incidents like Pike River and Cave Creek.

“While psychosocial risks might not be as high profile, they are probably more insidious – just look at our mental health and suicide statistics. We have been focused on safety, so this research project is about putting the health back into health and safety.”

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the United Kingdom says workplaces where less attention is paid to risk assessments and stress prevention – and where there is poor management overall – will generally have higher rates of absence and illness.

Research also shows that long working hours and low job control are linked to higher rates of workplace injuries and hypertension. And a survey conducted in the UK found that low pay negatively affected many people’s day-to-day lives and relationships.

All of this mounting evidence casts further doubt on the worth of employee wellbeing initiatives that concentrate solely on lifestyle factors.

“Of course a company is more likely to offer you a free FitBit than they are to modify sick leave policies or adjust their line on overtime – one requires spending a bit of money on some technology, the other fundamentally overhauling the way we think about work,” says Reynolds.

These sentiments are echoed by the TUC.

“Unfortunately, many employers prefer to look at changing the behaviour of the workers rather than the workplace. They seem to think that, rather than remove stress in the work, they should introduce on-site massage or after-work yoga classes.”

Workplace analyst Arraz Makhzani points to a randomised controlled study involving 12,000 people that found that workers in employee wellbeing programmes were no more likely to stay in their job, take fewer sick days or spend less on medical treatment than those who weren’t.

“Companies should… base their efforts on evidence of what works. They should also work to weave health and wellbeing into the physical fabric of buildings and the cultural fabric of the organisation,” says Makhzani, “Health and wellbeing should be a foundational principle of companies rather than an after-thought tacked up retrospectively and only addressed through poorly understood and often ineffective interventions.”

Any wellbeing programme should ideally include a good hard look at the management of the workplace, how work is organised and how workers are supported.

Taking that one step further, there shouldn’t even be the need for a wellbeing ‘programme’ as such; as Makhzani says, wellbeing should be in the fabric of the business.

This is what Z Energy is striving for.

“We still commonly talk about a wellbeing programme, a leadership programme and a health and safety-related programme being separate things,” says Chris Eastham, Z Energy’s Health and Wellbeing Manager. “The next step in maturity is to bring those things together because they’re often aimed towards the same outcomes. This way we have an approach that seamlessly supports both culture and strategy.”

If we do get it right in the workplace

When we do wellbeing properly, businesses and individuals both reap the rewards.

While little work has been done in New Zealand on the return on investment on wellbeing spending, European studies estimate for every Euro spent on wellbeing there was a return of between €2.5 and €4.8 due to reduced absenteeism. A New Zealand workplace survey estimated 6.7 million workdays were lost through absenteeism in 2014, with the direct costs of absenteeism amounted to an estimated $1.45 billion across the country. And let’s not forget the costs of “presenteeism” – when workers show up but aren’t engaged with their work and contribute little.

Insurance provider Southern Cross’s approach to wellbeing incorporates lifestyle, financial security, sustainability, movement and nutrition, community service, arts and culture, diversity and inclusion.

According to Stuff, employee turnover is decreasing as a result. Chief people and strategy officer Vicki Caisley says the cost of replacing an employee is two to five times their annual salary.

“It doesn’t take very long before an investment in a wellbeing programme is nothing.”

The Mental Health Foundation describes mental wellbeing as one of the most valuable business assets.

“Workplaces that prioritise mental health have better engagement, reduced absenteeism and higher productivity, while people have improved wellbeing, greater morale and higher job satisfaction.”

Dr Lucy Hone, director of the NZ Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience agrees, pointing to research that shows that the best performing employees are the ones with high levels of psychological health, sometimes referred to as ‘psychological capital’ to reflect its value.

“How happy we are at work, how meaningful that work is, how much we get to use our strengths every day, how much control we have over the way we work, and how much our contribution is valued, all have a massive impact on our productivity, intention to stay or leave, and even the way we interact with customers. Bottom line? Psychologically flourishing people perform better in every walk of life,” she told Stuff.

The Mental Health Foundation recommends workplaces use Five Ways to Wellbeing, a toolkit it developed with the Health Promotion Agency to help people find balance, build resilience and boost mental health and wellbeing.  The five ways are simplified to: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, Give.

Similarly, Wellplace recommends a ‘plan, do, review’ approach to implementing wellbeing practices in the workplace. Initiatives like Workwell are there to help businesses get better in this area. And they are getting better, slowly.

Of course, with the best intentions in the world, the reality of a workplace can be different. Big corporates typically have shareholders to answer to, while smaller businesses might struggle to offer employees flexibility and support.

The Wellcome Trust, based in London with 800 staff, recently scrapped plans to trial a four-day working week because it was “too operationally complex to implement”. Here in New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian reported a 20% increase in productivity after switching to a four-day week, however a University of Auckland study found increased stress among some people because of shorter timeframes to complete tasks.

Therein lies one of the key challenges for any organisation: how do we navigate the operational complexities, demands of stakeholders, and other perceived barriers to wellbeing, to embed a culture where people are valued and looked after? Because, as an increasing body of evidence is showing, only then, will we see businesses truly flourish.

Kim Knight agrees.

“This is why change on a societal and corporate level takes so much time, and why it is forward-thinking companies who will lead the way: companies who are willing to do things differently, to see things differently.”

Wellbeing in the Workplace is the next topic to come under scrutiny in Health Central’s popular ChalkTalks panel discussion series. See full details and ticketing information here.


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