Employee engagement closely tied to health and wellbeing

Most employers know that an engaged workforce is more likely to be a more productive one, but less acknowledged is the link between engagement and the health and wellbeing of staff.

Can you have employee engagement without wellbeing, or are the two inextricably linked, even symbiotic? This question should be important to anyone interested in creating the right environment for success – one in which employees are motivated and productive.

A mounting body of evidence strongly suggests wellbeing is an essential aspect of engagement, and that companies may be missing a trick if they don’t tackle the two in tandem.

CIPD research published in December 2012, Managing for sustainable employee engagement: developing a behavioural framework, concluded that in order to get the best out of people, managers should be adept at preventing stress.

It found that those bosses who pass on stress by panicking about deadlines and do not provide advice to or consult with staff tend to erode motivation and undermine employee health and wellbeing.

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And a 2010 Work Foundation report, The Business Case for Employees’ Health and Wellbeing, took the stance that employee health has become a “hard economic factor”. It argued that – both now and over the next 30 years – employee ill-health represents as big a threat to the UK’s productivity and competitiveness as the country’s skills and training deficit. Some might feel this is overstating the scale of the problem, but the stakes are clearly high.

That’s certainly the belief of the Engage for Success (E4S) movement, supported by organisations accounting for more than two million UK employees. In August last year, E4S established a wellbeing group, chaired by Wendy Cartwright, former HR director of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which has unearthed further evidence of the significant links between wellbeing and engagement. 

“Our key findings are twofold,” says Cartwright. “First, we found that individuals, teams and organisations work most productively for sustained periods where there are high levels of engagement and wellbeing.

This is because where there is high engagement but low wellbeing, there is a risk of burn-out over time, and where there is high wellbeing but low engagement, employees may be feeling generally satisfied and well but are unconnected to the organisational purpose.

Second, we found that it is possible to create a kind of a virtuous circle in the relationship between employee engagement and wellbeing. Because of this, when organisations really pay attention to the factors that facilitate staff wellbeing, this can help to generate a feeling of connection with the organisation and stronger employee engagement.”

In essence, the findings show that when organisations put a lot of effort into improving employee engagement, it results in more motivated people who get a sense of accomplishment at work. Typically, these people have higher levels of personal wellbeing. As Cartwright says, it’s a virtuous circle. 

A strategy for wellbeing

But what are the practicalities of delivering a strategy that embraces wellbeing and engagement in a holistic way? Business in the Community has already done valuable groundwork in this respect, working with businesses to develop the Workwell model.

As well as demonstrating the benefits of taking a strategic and proactive approach, the model has been designed to be of practical assistance and covers the actions businesses need to take to create an environment in which employees can make informed, healthy choices. A number of businesses have used the Workwell model to underpin their wellbeing programmes. 

Yet implementation can be daunting, particularly for large, multi-faceted organisations. Harriet Robinson, employee engagement manager at Bupa UK, says it is challenging given that “our people work in a range of different environments” across the UK, from call centres to care homes, clinics to offices, and distribution centres to hospitals.   

All senior leaders have signed up to helping more Bupa people become actively engaged in their own health. “Promoting the health of our people is also an integral part of our development and performance management process,” says Robinson.

Appropriately, the private healthcare provider has also taken its own advice on looking after employees, providing the Business Fit programme, originally designed to help companies with 20 or more employees, to all UK staff.

Business Fit offers early interventions against common causes of long-term absence, and treatment for conditions such as back and knee problems and mental-health issues, as well as access to counselling and 24/7 phone support to discuss health concerns with GPs and nurses.

At consultancy PwC, the emphasis of wellbeing within a holistic engagement strategy is on supporting the psychological health of its people, who operate in a fast-paced and stressful environment.

“We aimed to find innovative and effective ways to help build our people’s resilience and performance,” says Sally Evans, senior manager of diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing at PwC. “We ran a pilot in parts of our business with a history of low wellbeing scores in our [employee engagement] survey.

"With the engagement of local leadership, we encouraged an open and honest dialogue around wellbeing. Each office took ownership of their wellbeing agenda through appointing wellbeing champions and running partner-led events.”

With an external supplier, PwC created a bespoke workshop providing practical tools to help individuals build their energy levels and resilience. The workshop explored how to stay in the “performance zone”, achieve “renewal” when necessary, and avoid being “triggered” into the “survival” or “burnout zones”. 

“We’ve seen measurable improvements after running the pilot programme with wellbeing scores in our ‘You matter’ survey up by 17 points and engagement scores up by eight points,” says Evans. “This was the first increase in wellbeing in the pilot area for some years, and the correlating improvement in employee engagement reinforced the linkages as well as the commercial benefit of the activity.”

To meet growing demand post-pilot, PwC developed an in-house resilience workshop, called ‘Don’t be a boiling frog’, which around 1,600 people across its business have attended to date.   

Putting it into practice

Taking such a proactive stance on engagement and wellbeing need not be confined to larger organisations. When technology company Postcode Anywhere relocated from the outskirts of a town into a city centre, employee wellbeing was at the forefront of the new set-up.

To coincide with the move, corporate membership at a local gym was introduced with tailor-made lunchtime classes for employees. More unusually, Postcode Anywhere bought kayaks for employees to use at lunch and after work. In addition, the firm also offers its employees free breakfast every morning and unlimited fruit.

Postcode Anywhere CEO Guy Mucklow says healthy, happy workers are proven to be far more engaged and productive. “It’s all too easy to stay slumped in your chair during the lunch break, but those who do exercise come back to their desks feeling rejuvenated and ready to crack on with their work,” he explains.

Furthermore, as well as creating a happy working environment for his staff, Mucklow believes that by encouraging a wellness culture he can help reduce absenteeism. According to CIPD research, sickness absence averaged 7.6 days per employee last year. At Postcode Anywhere, a mere 1.5 days per employee were lost to sickness – a fifth of the national average.

Tellingly, another SME – packaging products manufacturer Nampak – saw its sickness absence rates fall by 28% after introducing its engagement and wellbeing programme. Research also highlighted encouraging levels of employee happiness, with four out of five staff recommending Nampak to family and friends as a great place to work.

A long-term approach

Undoubtedly, taking a more holistic view of engagement and everything connected with it has become more commonplace. “There’s a lot more talk about sustainability now,” says head of Hay Group Insight Sam Dawson. “You can’t just have an engaged and enabled workforce – what if they have to go home because of stress? You have to understand how they are feeling.”

Dawson points to a project he recently undertook for a large organisation. Of those employees who said that the organisation “demonstrated care and concern” for their wellbeing, 82% were rated as effective (those employees who score above the norm for engagement and enablement).

Of those who said the organisation did not show care and concern, only 29% were rated as effective: a massive difference between the two groups. “So, in essence, demonstrating care and concern for employees makes the difference between the vast majority being effective versus ineffective,” adds Dawson. “The bottom line is that a focus on wellbeing drives staff performance.”

Although the trend towards organisations integrating wellbeing more tightly into their engagement strategies is clear, there is still a way to go. Towers Watson research published in May 2013 found that while more than two-thirds of UK organisations planned to increase support for health and wellbeing programmes, a third said a lack of evidence of financial returns was a significant obstacle to improving the health and wellbeing of their workforce. Moreover, only 16% of employers measured the impact of their programmes on staff health. 

That’s all the more surprising in light of some other findings from the survey. Among those employers that did measure their workforce, 98% of employees said they were affected by stress and 97% said they struggled with work/life balance. So when it comes to enabling happy and healthy employees, much remains to be done.