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Building a workforce fit for the future

HR has had to be reactive when dealing with employee wellbeing over the past few years. But as we proactively plan for the future, and adjust to living with Covid and beyond, how can people teams build a truly inclusive wellbeing strategy?

It would be understandable enough to take a look at the long list of needs, hopes and desires inherent in any one group of people in their search for wellbeing, and to feel a little panic about how one strategy can do right by them all.

There are now five generations in the workplace, all with different responsibilities and cares.

Globalisation has made the workforce a bright tapestry of cultures; advances have made work more accessible than ever to disabled colleagues; and neurodiversity is better understood than ever before.

Any one individual may need adjustments to their working style or pattern quite different to their colleague one chair over.

HR is faced with the unenviable task of building a wellbeing strategy that understands these diverse needs. To find out exactly how, HR magazine called together experts for an HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership with Uber for Business.

Building a wellbeing strategy fit for the future:

Guidance on employing disabled workers published

Long COVID: rethinking ill-health and the world of work

HR professionals lack confidence in spotting neurodivergence


Starting the conversation

The first step, according to Angela Matthews, head of policy and research at the Business Disability Forum (BDF), is to identify your employees needs.

She said: “It’s amazing, the number of employers I’ve spoken to – even team leaders – who don’t know where their team members live, who they live with, or even who has broadband access.”

Because of the pandemic, many employers have had to get to know their employees again – and not just in terms of their diversity profile (their gender or race, for example). 

Matthews added: “We’re witnessing the nature of workplace relationships having to change, so that workplaces really know who their staff are, and what resources their staff have access to.

“That’s what you need to know before you start designing your wellbeing strategy: knowing who you’re designing it for.”

Neil Morrison, group HR director at water company Severn Trent, agreed, saying that a good wellbeing strategy should be created from what’s important to everyone, rather than from any one central directive.

This is no easy task, however. He said: “So many issues have risen to the surface all at once [in the past few years]. 

“As people professionals, trying to process that and understand what you do, how you do it, and in what order – it’s really quite challenging.”

Jas Rai, head of people at the British Library, acknowledged the sudden change for HR.

She said: “I wonder how many of us had really thought of our wellbeing strategy before. As people experts, overnight we’ve had to become experts in mental health, wellbeing, and support. 

It has been exhausting for HR teams.”

HR, however, is not alone, nor should it be. There are avenues of support and networks, said Rai, that can help underpin HR with their expertise.

“That’s where you call upon people in your workforce. Employee networks, staff networks, colleagues in trade unions – really using them to help us understand the diverse needs of the organisation.”

“Sometimes I feel that we need to step back and not overcomplicate it."

Employers, however, might have thousands of staff across different locations, with varying languages, cultures, and religions. According to Matthews, many will ask her: ‘How can we take all these things into consideration?’

She said: “Sometimes I feel that we need to step back and not overcomplicate it.

“What employees want is a hell of a lot simpler than the strategies we are writing about them.”

For many people, key elements will simply come out through communication, Matthews said. Employees can be sensitive to the way they are talked about as someone with a disability, a long-term condition or in grief.

Employees may also miss the commute between meetings and find any increase in workload resulting from the pandemic detrimental to their wellbeing, Matthews added.

She said: “It’s bringing it back to the simple stuff: what is actually causing stress and unwellness for our employees.”


Keeping it simple

Whether between office and frontline staff, or different generations, the divide in needs can seem irresolvable. More than a third (38%) of the webinar’s audience listed generational differences as their main difficulty in creating a wellbeing strategy.

That said, according to Morrison, there are still some universal needs and wants that any employee has regardless of their demographic.

Understanding expectations, for example, and knowing that there is someone to talk to about workload may seem simple, Morrison said, but it helps whatever the role or position.

He added: “Most people that come to work want to know that, actually, there are people at work who care for them and see them as an individual. That, for me, is the very simple concept at the heart of this.

“At the heart of wellbeing, is: how do you create that for as many people across the organisation as you can?”

When it comes to benefits, employers should look first to employees’ central needs, Morrison said.

“If we’re not careful, we end up going after fads and trinkets, and missing the core essence [of wellbeing].”

Giving employees a good pension, access to private healthcare, or securing necessary adjustments in the workplace, he said can be instrumental in maintaining employee wellbeing.

“These fundamental things we should all be doing: helping people feel cared for, if they have a long-term illness, or if they become disabled in their employment. 

“I know it’s not sexy, but those are the fundamental cornerstones of looking after your workforce. Everything else then builds on top of that.”

Matthews agreed. Many employers, she said, have turned towards wellbeing apps during the pandemic. Some apps, however, invite colleagues to compete, for example, on how many steps they have taken, or how far your colleagues have run that day.

She said: “We’ve been inundated with emails from disabled staff who say it’s not accessible to them.”

"If we’re not careful, we end up going after fads."

Wellbeing initiatives must be accessible to all employees, Matthews said – what would it say to disabled staff, if you were to push wellbeing initiatives that actively excluded them?

Again, she said, it is an issue of listening to staff, and asking: “Can they actually use it, and easily? And [is it] making them feel cared for?”



More than a quarter (27%) of the audience had listed supporting neurodiversity as their greatest challenge when building their wellbeing strategy.

Matthews said that while the neurodiversity label can be interpreted in very different ways, it is generally understood as including all those whose brains are wired in a slightly different way. 

As such the catch-all is very broad, including colleagues with autism and brain injuries, as well as those with dyslexia or ADHD.

Whatever their individual needs, Matthews said, the approach is the same as with any other grouping.

She said: “What we need to understand is who is being negatively impacted, by our behaviours, by our policies, and by the way we work.”

This may well depend from person to person, someone with dyslexia may face different barriers, for example, to someone who has had a stroke, she said.

Whatever the case, she said, it all comes back to one question: “How can we remove those barriers?” 


Watch the full webinar on demand here.


Catch up and subscribe to all HR Lunchtime Debates here.


This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine.  Subscribe today  to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.