Wellbeing in the workplace is an area of increasing focus for companies keen to improve their culture, working environment and employee performance.
However, to make a real difference businesses must take a holistic approach that goes beyond pure physical health to focus on mental and emotional wellbeing too. Organisations from every sector are being encouraged to forget about gimmicks such as gym discounts or free fruit, and integrate wellbeing into performance management, so it holds equal importance with sales or hitting targets.
This is the approach taken at insurer Direct Line Group, where mental wellbeing is built into the fabric of the business and its performance management policies. In both the measurement and rewarding of staff performance, 50% is focused on achievements and 50% on how they are achieved.
“It is quite a statement because it says we don’t tolerate people who do some brilliant things, but not in the right way,” explains marketing director Mark Evans. “We have put our money where our mouth is in terms of appreciating and demanding things are done in the right way.”
Evans believes performance management should be a regular conversation that treats development and financial targets equally. All one-to-one conversations between an employee and their manager are recorded and monitored, so it becomes part of the manager’s responsibilities to help their people develop.
There’s this notion of ‘humble bragging’ about how busy we are and now people are being called out as that’s not a healthy thing.
Mark Evans, Direct Line Group
“Our talent system gives equal measure to emotional intelligence, IQ and drive. So, [for example,] we look at all those people who are tremendously intelligent, but don’t have the emotional intelligence, and look at the material ways we can take that through to talent planning,” explains Evans.
Each manager in the marketing team is given explicit feedback about their capabilities every six months, with those who perform poorly being actively engaged to improve the quality of their people management. Evans explains that formalising the importance of wellbeing helps teams prioritise healthier ways of working.
“The world is crazy these days; people are always on the edge of burning out and it’s about taking stock and looking after yourself,” he adds. “There’s this notion of ‘humble bragging’ about how busy we are and now people are being called out as that’s not a healthy thing.”
Remove mental health’s stigma
Much of wellbeing starts with empowering people to feel confident enough to speak up when they feel overwhelmed. It is therefore crucial that organisations prioritise those discussions, says Geoff McDonald, former global vice-president of HR at Unilever and now executive director at Open Mind, a health consultancy helping organisations address the stigma of mental health.
“The reason we have never measured a person’s energy levels in performance management systems or seen it as a strategic driver of the performance of individuals is because we have never really taken the concept of wellbeing seriously enough,” he says.
McDonald believes workplace wellbeing is not consistently addressed by companies because no overt connection is being drawn between wellbeing and performance. He argues the four elements of wellbeing – physical health, emotional health, mental health and a sense of purpose – should be formalised within performance management in equal measure.
“As a line manager, I could say: here are some of the things you could do to attend to your emotional health. And if in six months’ time you haven’t attended to that, I’m going to hold you accountable and we’re going to have a harder conversation, because it’s depleting your energy and impacting your performance at work,” explains McDonald.
The key is encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their emotional and mental health, meaning teams must be prepared to address the stigma.
“We need to create an environment where it’s OK to suffer from depression and anxiety. This is a normal part of life and it [doesn’t suggest weakness]. We have got to normalise it and shift mental health into something aspirational, rather than it being a negative place,” adds McDonald.
Wellbeing is not an initiative, it’s about creating a culture and environment where people thrive.
Patrick Watt, Bupa
Normalising discussions about mental health is central to the strategy at Lloyds Banking Group, which in January entered a two-year partnership with charity Mental Health UK. The partnership aims to raise at least £2m a year to help create a pioneering service offering support for people experiencing both mental health and financial difficulties.
To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week in May, Lloyds ran ‘Me on a good day’, a campaign encouraging people across the business to share stories about their mental health and wellbeing. It generated more than 1,700 entries, which were viewed more than 17,000 times.
Lloyds has also added specific health and wellbeing questions to its colleague surveys in order to improve its understanding of mental health-related absences.
Although it is difficult to tell if changes to stress and mental health-related absences are due to an increase in instances of such illnesses, the senior manager for the group disability programme, Sarah Snow, says greater openness within the business and society at large is giving people the confidence to speak out.
To raise awareness across the industry and help people make their voice heard, The Marketing Society held an event in April around mental wellbeing, to look at how people tackle taboos and the power of being yourself at work.
“Since then, a number of senior marketing leaders from big brands have pledged to build mental health into their agenda in company days,” says chief executive Gemma Greaves. “I made a public pledge that this event was just the beginning. We know that talent is a critical issue for the future and therefore we must also acknowledge that looking after the wellbeing of our marketers is essential.”
Create a culture to thrive
Enabling employees to take control of their wellbeing is having a huge effect on improving satisfaction and retention, as well as helping companies attract new talent.
Healthcare group Bupa encourages its teams to prioritise their physical and mental health through its digital wellbeing platform Bupa Boost. All 30,000 employees use the platform to share information about the aspects of wellbeing most important to them, as well as working with their colleagues to fulfil their wellbeing goals.
Boost also gives the team real-time insight into the wellbeing issues that are most important so they can keep pace with the changing priorities.
“Wellbeing is not an initiative, it’s about creating a culture and environment where people thrive,” explains Patrick Watt, corporate director and global head of wellness at Bupa.
“You just don’t do it for a week or a year. It’s something you integrate within the culture. Leadership and setting that tone is really important.”
This opinion is shared by Direct Line Group’s marketing team, who split their annual training budget equally across each team member to spend on their own development.
One marketer who had suffered from severe depression, for example, used their annual budget over three years to train to become a counsellor, believing it was the best way they could give back to the organisation.
“It creates a lot of empowerment and it works in terms of getting people to take ownership of their development,” says Evans. “It also reinforces our commitment. If you don’t spend that money, it shows you’re not serious about development.”
Giving individuals the power to determine their own wellbeing is having a big effect on engagement with the company. Whereas three years ago the marketing team had an engagement rate of 40%, one of the lowest in the organisation, following the wellbeing changes engagement is up to 80%.
Take a holistic approach
Offering high wages or sales-related bonus schemes is not enough to engage teams, particularly as the quest for work-life balance has affected modern workplace culture, says Bupa’s Watt.
“We offer very competitive salaries, but if it was just salaries we would lose people to other businesses, so taking a more holistic view is very important. We have got to move beyond [the wellbeing] agenda being seen as gym discounts, yoga classes and free fruit. It’s such a gimmicky way of looking at such a serious agenda,” adds Watt.
Dale Smith, creative director at London-based engagement and culture agency Bridge, agrees that short-lived perks will not help people feel a sense of wellbeing. Instead, he advises organisations to devote attention to “deeper behavioural stuff” that drives positive outcomes.
We hear from our colleagues that wellbeing is, and will continue to be, a key area we should focus on as a business
Amy Smith, M&S
“We get misconstrued when we use words like wellness and think about only physical health, and it’s not. Health is a recipe and we need to create those touchpoints in an organisation where people feel their voice is being heard. When you don’t think your voice is being heard, depression sets in,” he explains.
Smith recently embarked on a 30-day wellness initiative called the Living Brand Project, during which he measured how changes to his diet, fitness, lifestyle and mental wellbeing would link back to his business performance.
The biggest takeaway from the project was the effect that prioritising wellbeing had on company culture and improving the customer experience, Smith reports.
“Brand and culture are two sides of the same coin. Your brand is your virtual outside promise and your culture is that community that lives inside the organisation that drives it forward and delivers the best customer and employee experience. If you really feel you are part of that business, you will offer a different customer experience.”
Align wellbeing with brand purpose
For wellbeing to become an integral part of company culture, it is crucial that any approach aligns authentically with the company’s core purpose. This is the case at health insurance brand Vitality, where the company exists to help people lead healthier lives.
Vitality employees are given access to Vitality Age, a calculator designed to help them better understand how their lifestyle choices are affecting their health, as well as being able to gain rewards through the company’s incentive-led health and wellness programme, Active Rewards.
The insurer’s employee assistance programme also gives staff 24-hour access to counselling, information and support, including access to specialist debt counsellors.
Director of marketing and human resources Keith Kropman notes a significant link between wellbeing and productivity based on the company’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey.
“The survey found that employers are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year as staff take time off sick and also underperform in the workplace as a result of ill-health – otherwise known as presenteeism,” says Kropman.
“This is equivalent to each worker losing more than an entire working month of productive time annually. When translated into monetary terms, the combination of this absence and presenteeism is costing the UK economy £73bn a year in lost productivity.”
Kropman argues it is therefore crucial to take account of wellbeing across a variety of dimensions from lifestyle and clinical indicators to mental wellbeing and workplace stress, particularly as data shows that employers with healthy and engaged employees lose 40% less productive time.
Marks & Spencer shares Vitality’s belief in the effect wellbeing has on workplace culture, which it enshrined in Plan A 2025 – the retailer’s sustainability strategy and commitment to physical and mental wellbeing.
Upskilling teams to better understand wellbeing has been a key focus. In 2016, the retailer partnered with Mental Health First Aid England to upskill its HR teams, as well as collaborating with mental health charity Mind to develop a guide on mental wellbeing at work for all line managers.
The wellbeing focus has reached all the way to the leadership team. M&S added a mental wellbeing element to its ‘Fit to Lead the Future’ programme, during which 20 senior leaders spent eight weeks learning from external charities and organisations.
Following the implementation of its mental wellbeing programmes, M&S has seen a four-point increase in its wellbeing score between 2016 and 2017, while calls to its employee assistance programme have also increased by 16%.
“We hear from our colleagues that wellbeing is, and will continue to be, a key area we should focus on as a business,” M&S explains wellbeing manager Amy Smith.
“We have fantastic support and resources in place, but there is more we can still do to make more colleagues and line managers aware of what there is and make it easy to find and access help.”
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