Is improving staff wellbeing the secret to brand health?

As the trend for wellbeing in the workplace gains traction, brands are realising the intrinsic link between a happy workforce and a happy customer.

As businesses seek to tackle the costs of work-related stress, the corporate landscape is becoming ever-more mindful of the wellbeing of staff. A growing number of companies are also realising that happier staff are more likely to create a rewarding experience for customers of their brands.

Fitness fashion retailer Sweaty Betty perkily wears staff wellbeing on its chic workout sleeve. It provides its people with numerous fun opportunities to live an active lifestyle, offers free workouts, organises team fitness events and sponsoring people to learn new health and fitness skills.

“Our company purpose is to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness and beyond, a message we promote to both our customers and our team,” says Louise Hudson, UK senior marketing manager. “We also host seminars onsite on topics such as the importance of sleep, financial health, advice for parents, and mindfulness – we know wellbeing is not just about being physically fit, but mentally fit too.”

The brand is in good company. While the tech-savvy staff at Google take 40 winks in a nap pod, British Airways’ HQ at Heathrow offers staff allotment plots and Rolls Royce is aligning the production of high performance engines with an investment in staff’s emotional and physical resilience.

Investment in wellness programmes arguably delivers attractive outcomes that alongside increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and talent retention, include pride and commitment from staff in what they do.

The principle that if you take care of employees they will take care of customers rings particularly true for the hotel sector.

We value a networking environment rather than a hierarchical environment.

Alex Weller, Patagonia

Operating in the highly competitive hospitality market, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) is well aware the first and last impression guests have is set by its people. Happy staff deliver good customer service is fundamental to business success, so having an overarching wellbeing strategy is crucial, according to Elaine Grell, vice-president of HR in Europe.

“On joining IHG, [colleagues] will be offered the opportunity to develop their careers, kept involved in the business and recognised for their contributions,” she says. “Through robust internal communications, we impart IHG’s ethos of ‘room to be yourself’ commitment promises.”

Grell cites the portfolio’s Kimpton hotel chain, which is renowned for its uniquely personal service, as an example of how staff are encouraged to do well for the brand by giving them some latitude and equipping them to make on-the-ground decisions in line with the company’s overall goal of creating a top-notch guest experience.

“It is this sense of freedom and empowerment that enables employees to provide a stellar guest experience across properties, but it also creates a great place to work for employees in roles from room attendant to general manager,” she says. 

IHG believes that carefully constructing this culture – a place where people come to work excited and engaged in what they do, where they can grow and learn, and where they can be themselves – is how it maintains competitive advantage. The value of this approach is clear. In the US this year, for example, IHG made the top 10 of KPMG Nunwood’s US Customer Experience Excellence ranking, climbing 64 spots since 2016.

READ MORE: Why US brands are crushing the UK on customer experience

Boost employee engagement

Richer Sounds managing director David Robinson wants staff to “want to serve customers”

Good approaches to wellbeing span companies of all sizes. A recent survey by Which? names hi-fi specialist Richer Sounds the best place to shop on the UK high street. The retailer, which employs around 500 people, attributes the customer service so integral to this accolade to its wellbeing strategy.

“We want our people to go in and want to serve customers,” says Richer Sounds managing director David Robinson. “What we need to make sure, therefore, is when people fall on a tough time or have a personal issue, we are there to support them.”

Specific examples of its approach are the one per cent of annual profits that go into its staff hardship fund, the subsidised gym membership, counselling services, medical referrals and free use of company holiday homes. The reward for the business is better staff motivation.

“It is that whole thing of us saying they are our most important asset,” argues Robinson. “It is very easy to say and lots of companies say it but by doing these things and providing support we are demonstrating it.”

In a challenging competitive environment, an organisation’s consumer brand can be strengthened only if its people believe in it and feel driven to deliver the brand ethos to customers on a day-to-day basis.

A successful strategy will be based on the core pillars of inspirational and visible leadership.

Rachel Suff, CIPD

According to a 2016 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) policy report, ‘Growing the health and wellbeing agenda: From first steps to full potential’, the evidence of the link, and mutually reinforcing relationship, between good wellbeing practices and better employee engagement is growing.

“Organisations that value their people in this way are more likely to create an environment where staff are willing to exert discretionary effort on behalf of the organisation and identify with its corporate goals and brand,” says Rachel Suff, employment relations adviser at the CIPD.

“A successful strategy will be based on the core pillars of inspirational and visible leadership, solid people management practices and a strong and supportive working culture.”

While Richer Sounds claims to live by its ‘putting people before profit’ mission statement, outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia embraces a ‘cause no unnecessary harm’ mantra. The multimillion-dollar business is known for doing things differently. Not only does the brand have a stated purpose to build the best product, but to use its business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. How it treats its staff is a natural extension of the philosophy.

Patagonia offers parents an on-site crèche

At Patagonia’s European headquarters in Amsterdam, employees can feed their body with organic food and onsite yoga, and their mind with a programme of regular guest speakers and events designed to inspire on environmental initiatives and issues. Other things that nourish workers’ commitment are onsite childcare and the option to take up two months paid-for environmental internships. Patagonia is known for having a flat structure, eschewing pyramids for networks.

“We’re hiring people who care about the environment and the outdoors and we feel it’s vital to provide a culture that supports and encourages a love for these things,” explains Patagonia’s Alex Weller, marketing director, Europe. “We value a networking environment rather than a hierarchical environment and we bring this to life through our open plan office, with long tables, where people from different teams can share lunch together or meet informally.”

READ MORE: The management styles unlocking unique ways of thinking

Create emotional resilience

All wellbeing at work should take this kind of holistic approach says Professor Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, as it is good for business.

“We have fewer people doing more work feeling more job insecure than ever before,” argues Cooper. “More and more companies are moving toward this kind of culture for a bottom line reason – they are not doing it as a nice to have but as a must have to retain and motivate people.”

Fundamental to any successful corporate wellbeing programme, he says, are the tools for emotional resilience. “The most important aspect of [wellbeing at work] is line managers with the interpersonal skills to know when people are not coping, who know where there may be trouble at home, who don’t create a long hours culture or email them at night,” says Cooper.

Rather than the ping pong tables and bean-bags approach to a nice work space, he argues that a true wellbeing culture is management by praise and reward rather than fault finding, having socially skilled line managers from ‘shop floor to top floor’, and a culture that trusts people and enables them to work flexible hours.

Making investment in mental and physical health, as well as thinking strategically about how to meet needs around motivation, work-life balance and career aspiration pays. Overall, it seems, a better level of wellbeing and a sense of achievement at work can foster greater commitment and enhance the customer experience.