Let’s Get Better: Employee Wellness and Corporate Health

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How organisations can support employee wellbeing, and why they should. 

Let’s go back just a few years, pre-pandemic, to 2019, to three connected but apparently inconsequential occurrences.   

An observer of employment trends and issues coins the term workism, summing up the idea that for some people work is not only necessary for an income, but is also at the centre of their identity and purpose. To a greater or lesser extent workism has infiltrated societies across the world; predominantly in the West, it has driven economic growth and catalysed innovation; in countries such as China and South Korea it has, within a dramatically short period, transformed or uplifted entire nations. 

More or less at the same time, Yale University psychology professor Laurie Santos becomes concerned that anxiety is ruining her students’ lives. She compiles a new course, The Science of Well-Being, with a curriculum focused on the pursuit of happiness. By mid-year 2019 the course has just over 22,000 learners.  

Simultaneously, the World Health Organisation formally recognises burnout as an occupational health syndrome. The WHO is clear: burnout is caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

Fast-forward to today. Physical and mental fatigue, anxiety-related disorders, reduced productivity, presenteeism (being at work but demotivated or disengaged): the ongoing Covid pandemic has brought these and other work-related pressures to a crescendo. Apart from the millions who have lost their jobs, it has caused the most stressful period in the working lives of so many. In a recent survey across 11 countries and covering a spectrum of seniority and leadership levels, Oracle and Workplace Intelligence report that 78% of a workforce sample of 12,000 people say it has adversely impacted their mental health. 

In some countries and sectors – notably information technology (IT) and hospitality in the U.S. and the U.K. – this has culminated in a Great Resignation as employers experience people’s changing perspectives and priorities as a wave of departures.  

What’s happening here is a shift away from workism. People want a job that is part of their life, not one that is their life. Now, an online search of ‘workism’ pulls up dozens of headings confirming this trend. “Workism Isn’t Working”, “How Workism Results in Burnout”, “You Are Not Your Job”: we are realising that we work for a reason, and that reason is not work itself.  

Professor Santos herself is further proof of this. Having expanded its accessibility through global online platforms, nearly 3.9 million people have now completed her The Science of Well-Being course. Ironically, she is taking a leave of absence. “I’m trying not to burn out,” she says.  

Hyper-competitiveness and the need for productivity 

If this explains why wellness is on top of business agendas, it doesn’t convey the full picture.  

For one, there is a conundrum involving stress. Although high-level, or constant stress is damaging, some stress – in tolerable doses, and in short phases – actually improves performance. And enterprises cannot escape the fact that the globalised economy is hypercompetitive and in constant flux. This represents a dilemma for corporate leadership: productivity is crucial, and results cannot be compromised – but they depend on productive, innovative and high-performing people. People who are well.  

What, actually, is meant by ‘wellness’? The words ‘wellbeing’ and ‘wellness’ are often used interchangeably. Wellness – the state of being healthy in body and mind – is one part of an overall, wider model which has up to seven dimensions of wellbeing: physical, mental, occupational, social, financial, emotional, and spiritual. In the modern world even just understanding how to think about wellbeing is – another irony – hard work! 

The key point for employers is that overall wellness is a 360-degree concept. Clearly, it can neither be isolated within a workplace context, nor assured by workplace programmes. So, what can organisations do, meaningfully, but also, realistically? 

They can genuinely put people first. An important premise for leaders is that the workforce wants a next, new normal at work. Employees accept that how this is shaped, and what it ultimately looks like, is a work-in-progress. But they expect, as a minimum, policies that allow in-office, remote, or hybrid work option flexibility, a degree of time fluidity, and general training and upskilling choices not linked to job descriptions or functions. Although not part of wellness programmes per se, without this basis employers may struggle to secure employee buy-in to more specific initiatives.     

Leadership can commit to intentionally building a culture of concern for wellbeing.

The C-Suite can lead by example. They can be communicative about wellness issues – perhaps about their personal experiences, too – and habituate health promotion into the company’s ethos. Indeed, it may be the organisation’s culture which determines the degree of wellness programme success. In setting the tone for listening and open-mindedness, meaningful communication, and inclusivity, the organisation’s culture either energises the wellness plan or is an obstacle to its effectiveness. 

Wellness can be integrated within a holistic talent strategy.

Talent managers should plot the progression of initiatives, and budget ambitiously. Virtual tools can help: platforms and AI-linked applications can widen internal access to a suite of appropriate support programmes. This not only cuts costs and provides instantaneous access, but – because they are non-judgemental – are sometimes preferred by employees. But, beware onesize-fits-all or quick-fix solutions. The organisation’s size and geographic spread, its culture, and the trends and pressures specific to its industry all play a role in the design of wellness initiatives appropriate for the company.   

Data and information can be used to assess, and reassess.

Although it is difficult to tie wellness programmes directly to ROI, a significant body of evidence-based literature can steer the measurement of correlations (see below). The tracking of indicators such as key staff retention rates, revenue to staff number ratios, and sick days lost can help monitor the impacts of the programmes, and how to refine them. Zooming into selected measures such as how many hours leadership team members work per week, or how many leavedays senior managers have accumulated, may point to problematic imbalances between capacities and expectations, or stress-inducing skills deficits. And soft measures can be gauged through qualitative checks on morale, motivation, and overall levels of engagement.  

Managers can carefully evaluate whether inclusion is happening.

Today’s workforce is multigenerational, multicultural, and connected to fast-changing global trends. This has multiple implications for talent and team management. One example is the need for genuine inclusivity, which, no matter how solid diversity and B-BBEE measures are, may be elusive. If this is not occurring, participation in and the success of wellness initiatives will be compromised.  

Companies can actively encourage employees to take responsibility for all dimensions of their overall wellbeing.

Well-being encompasses people’s overall welfare: their health, happiness, and prosperity. The company’s programmes may not be able to impact all of these significantly, but the more they touch employees’ lives, the more likelihood of overall success. 

 

Wellness and well-being is big business 

Corporate wellness has become a significant industry in its own right, estimated at a worldwide 2020 value of $57 billion and, at an annual growth rate of 7%, projected to exceed $100 billion before the end of the decade. These are understated figures, because some organisations run health and wellness programmes entirely in-house with no external financial flows.  

Inevitably, the industry is exploding in the U.S., and the country leads its development and innovation. Recently launched mental-health-care providers, some focusing of digital platforms or apps, include Modern Health,  Lyra Health, and Spring Health. All boast blue-chip, global entities as their clients, and are in various stages of public listing preparation; another, digital coaching and counselling platform BetterUp, has seen 80% growth in its user base over the last twelve months, and is now valued at nearly $5 billion.  

The growth and valuations of these companies, their diverse offerings, their business-to-business penetration into many of the world’s leading corporations, signals that employers are starting to appreciate that work-related stress is systemic, and collective wellness change is needed.  

But if wellness is now a serious business, does it deliver value, and results?  

In a research paper titled ‘Employee wellbeing, productivity and firm performance’, academics at the London School of Economics concluded on their meta-analysis of  339 studies aggregated across 49 industries, 230 companies, and 1.9 million employees. Their findings sum up why wellness and wellbeing are crucial for any company: “We find a significant, strong positive correlation between employees’ satisfaction with their company and employee productivity and customer loyalty, and a strong negative correlation with staff turnover. Ultimately, higher wellbeing at work is positively correlated with more business-unit level profitability.” 

Here’s the kicker: Firms with higher levels of employee wellbeing also tend to do better in terms of stock market performance and growth,” the report says.  

This crystalises that employee wellbeing should be seen as one of the pillars of a business plan aiming to future-proof the company. More than ever, it’s important that organisations treat their employees not just fairly, but well.  

Democratising wellness   

There’s a big picture to this and, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it has many pieces. One is the fast-gathering impetus behind rehumanising work. Another is our mutual co-dependency and, hence, the need for cooperation – literally and figuratively, working more closely together. “The discussion we need to be having asks: what do we owe each other and what are our expectations of each other?” prompts London School of Economics director, Minouche Shafik. “People who think they have climbed the greasy pole on their own misunderstand how much luck had a part to play and how society, directly or indirectly, also helped them rise.” 

If we think of workplace wellbeing in this context, then all the evidence, the statistics, recommendations – and articles, including this one – take on lesser importance. Supporting employee health and wellbeing will deliver benefits, across the board. But it’s simply the right thing to do. 

Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive

DigitalCampus

 In partnership with Dave Gorin 

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