· 5 min read · Features

An Active Workforce

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Your company may have a health and wellbeing strategy in place – but is it really working? Making sure employees are happy, healthy and more engaged in their wellbeing boosts productivity – and saves money. MARY CARMICHAEL explains how you can ensure your strategy is doing its job

Lunchtime yoga? Check. Subsidised gym membership? Check. Workstation comfort survey? Check. Extra lettuce in the canteen? Check. Ah, if only implementing a successful employee health and wellbeing strategy were that simple. 

The benefits are legion – when it works, it cuts sickness absence levels, number of accidents and staff turnover, and their associated costs; it boosts reputation and gives a competitive edge when recruiting new talent; it leads to increased productivity from
a more engaged workforce. So it’s small wonder that health and wellbeing was recently described as “the new CSR” by experts from Nuffield Health and Ashridge Business School. The sustainability of employees’ health is becoming one of the biggest challenges companies face today. 

According to the 2012 CIPD absence management survey, more than half the organisations surveyed have an employee wellbeing strategy, a proportion that continues to increase. Even those without a specific strategy provide wellbeing benefits, with access to counselling and employee-assistance programmes the most common. About a third offer ‘stop smoking’ support, subsidised gym membership, health screening and advice on healthy eating.

However, it’s hard to say whether these measures are always hitting the right target, as less than a quarter of the organisations in the CIPD survey evaluate the impact of their wellbeing spend. And, while cheaper fitness training may be handy for those who already do triathlons, what about staff whose health kick only extends to walking to the curry house instead of taking the car?

There’s no blueprint to developing a health and wellbeing strategy, but there’s plenty of scope to get it not quite right – no clear aim, a fragmented approach, a lack of relevance, poor accessibility, inconsistent communication, the wrong language. It’s a long list and the end result is a not-quite-asengaged-as-they-might-be workforce. So how do you design a health and wellbeing programme and put it into practice so the maximum number of employees engage with it, not just those who are already proactive in caring for their health?

A clear definition of what constitutes wellbeing is a good start, says Dr Bridget Juniper, chartered occupational psychologist and head of Work and Well-Being. “About 90% of the time, these schemes are about reducing absenteeism and boosting productivity,” she says. “However, there’s very little evidence that eating lettuce in the canteen or doing aerobics once a week has any correlation to productivity – all you are doing there is preaching to the choir; helping those people who are already motivated and not those you are really trying to reach. I’ve yet to see compelling evidence that this sort of approach really brings any long-term change.” 

She suggests looking past lifestyle, nutrition, BMI and exercise to include all the elements of work that people perceive to impact on their life. After all, health issues don’t start with what someone puts in their mouth; they’re more about the factors that cause food and fitness choices. London Overground Rail Operations Ltd (LOROL) is one organisation that has worked with Juniper to delve deeper, with the aim of cutting sickness and absenteeism. It recorded  consistently high employee engagement levels; but attendance was stuck at the 96% mark, just missing the 97% target.

Employees were asked to rank workplace irritants in order of how they affected wellbeing and also asked about the number of sick days they’d taken. “We found that staff were up to seven times more likely to be off with sickness if they’d scored certain factors highly,” says HRD Darren Hockaday. “We looked at where we could have the biggest impact.” 

Measures so far have included making conductors’ roles more interactive – giving them more up-to-date information so they can make announcements to inform passengers, and training them to cope with customer reactions to disruption. The supply of uniforms has been speeded up – including providing waterproof trousers to staff who work outside in winter, and physiotherapy offered to staff who have to stand for long periods. LOROL has also introduced coffee machines in every mess room.

The latter measures represent quite a significant cost, but Hockaday reckons they’re considerably cheaper than the costs related to the 1,500 sick days saved by hitting the absenteeism target. “We‘ve saved £100,000 in direct sickness costs – and that’s a fairly conservative estimate,” he says.

Other experts agree that focusing on just physical health and wellbeing doesn’t maximise benefits. Ivan Robertson, director of business psychology company Robertson Cooper, believes mental wellbeing is key to any successful strategy, and not just the elements that ‘pick up the pieces’, such as counselling and employee assistance. 

“There are things about wellbeing and engagement that everybody gets – diet, exercise, giving up smoking – the whole physical-health agenda,” he says. “But what’s really underpinning it should be an understanding of the psychological side.”

Robertson also believes that, in order to work, a health and wellbeing programme has to be linked to an organisation’s overall strategy and be coordinated across all areas. “Wellbeing creates a whole load of benefits related to absenteeism and productivity across an organisation and therefore impacts on attraction and recruitment,” he says. “This means at least three different sections of the organisation are involved and this can lead to a fragmented approach.” Coordination can also promote consistency. It’s no use having a fantastic wellbeing programme in place, if, in practice, going home earlier than 6pm, coming in after 8am or taking a lunch break are frowned upon. And one of the key factors here is getting senior leaders involved.

John Binns, a partner at Deloitte who championed a mentalhealth initiative across the consulting giant [see box, left], says enlisting the support of those at the top was imperative. “To get others to engage, you have to be in the shadow of the leader. It’s got to come from the top rather than being ‘something HR does’. If leaders don’t take it seriously, no one else will.”

Coordination also means a scheme is likely to become embedded and a mandatory part of training. Exeter University, for example, has introduced training on resiliencefor all middle managers, which gives them diagnostic tools and techniques to look at their own resilience and to understand how to help their team members, possibly by adopting a balance of different leadership styles.

“We already had an established wellbeing policy that included occupational-health support and a physicalwellbeing programme, but we needed to bring the policy to life,” explains Tash Khan-Davis, assistant director of learning and development. “And to recognise that the factors impacting most on staff were those associated with growth – change and increased workload.”

So far, 170 of 240 middle managers have completed the training and the level of success has been high, with 90% of attendees saying, two weeks later, that they would recommend others to do the same programme.

Khan-Davis says that one of the reasons this training has been so well received is that it’s relevant, and experts all agree that this is another crucial factor in getting employees to engage in wellbeing initiatives: they need to see how these affect their working life directly.

They will also only truly engage when what’s offered is accessible. Anna Keeble of Get Fit for Purpose, which tailors a rolling four-week programme to individuals’ physical and stress issues, goals and motivation levels, says personalisation greatly increases both relevance and accessibility. “We work with people at different stages of their wellbeing journey,” she says. “One person may want to climb Kilimanjaro while someone else may just be wanting to sleep better. If we treat individuals in individual ways, the programmes will have beneficial effects on them and those around them.”

Any training or support also needs to be delivered in a style appropriate to the culture and by people who understand the sector. Getting the language right is also key. “It’s got to be right for the business and in the right place to attract people,” says Binns. His organisation’s mental-health initiative uses “the language of mental health” for the elements concerned with supporting those experiencing problems, but for the preventative side, the words used need to be motivational and are “all about physical wellbeing and performance”.

In fact, engaging employees at all levels is always going to take regular communication – and often a creative approach. Jem Sarna, group wellbeing and safety manager, HR, for vocational educational organisation City & Guilds, faces a challenge in attracting staff to the organisation’s wellbeing offering, because a quarter of the 1,000-strong workforce is scattered away from the London HQ across regional or overseas offices. He also has a very limited budget.

His answer has been to make use of the intranet, bringing together wellbeing-related information, with pages that include nutrition and fitness advice, details of mental-health support and information on access, as well as links to every free resource going. He is also constantly on the lookout for enthusiastic reactions and encourages these wellbeing champions to blog about their experiences. “It starts a conversation,” he says. “And enthusiasm snowballs.” 

Reaction to the use of specific employee champions for wellbeing is mixed. Robertson feels most efforts are “a bit piecemeal”, whereas Get Fit for Purpose’s Keeble believes the best champions are a company’s “natural energy hot spots”. “Everyone has their own interest and motivation and once people have their passion ignited, they become engaged,” she says. “They get enthusiastic and they want to share. Companies are natural networks and enthusiasm is contagious; it will always bring other people in.”