Wellness trends, employee health needs and competitor pressures can make an organisation’s wellbeing programme look seriously out of shape. To ensure it keeps packing a punch, workplace wellbeing must be an ongoing exercise.
It’s particularly important now. As a result of the pandemic, and more recently the cost of living crisis, employee wellbeing has taken a hit. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that just 44.7 per cent of people are satisfied with their health – down from 51.4 per cent in 2015/16. Additionally, more adults in the UK are reporting evidence of depression or anxiety – 23.7 per cent, up from 17.8 per cent in 2015/16.
As well as the health and wealth pressures, changes in the way we work have also affected wellbeing. “Hybrid working hasn’t delivered for wellbeing,” says Debra Clark, head of wellbeing at Towergate Health & Protection. “Employees are becoming more sedentary, missing out on exercise but also social interaction.”
And, as we’ve all slumped into our sofas, it’s made it harder to get the wellbeing message out. “Posters on the office wall don’t work anymore,” explains Emma Capper, UK wellbeing leader at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing. “Employers need to factor in the fact that more people are working remotely when planning their wellbeing communications.”
Wellbeing that works
Although the health of the nation has taken a hit over the last few years, there’s no simple solution to fixing our wellbeing. “There are hundreds of thousands of health and wellbeing apps out,” says Capper. “They might promise all sorts of incredible results but less than 5 per cent of them are clinically backed. Some due diligence is essential before starting to build a wellbeing programme.”
It’s also important that any programme fits the needs of the organisation and its employees. “Every workplace is different so you need to look at what will work: it’s no good offering a worksite gym if the work environment means no one can find the time to use it,” explains Matt Liggins, head of wellbeing at Health Shield. “Wellbeing needs to be part of the day, and part of the organisation’s culture.”
Workplace data can be a valuable starting point. Information on sickness absence trends, results of employee engagement surveys and usage data from employee assistance programmes and medical insurance can give insight into health issues across the workforce.
Even simple datasets such as employee gender and age can help to shape a wellbeing programme. However, Clark warns against making assumptions. “Ask employees what they want,” she explains. “A survey focused on two or three of the areas you identified in the data can help to pick out the wellbeing interventions that employees will use.”
Wellbeing programme should also contain a range of different interventions. This ensures that as many employees as possible benefit but also enables employers to tick the much sought-after personalised health box.
Variety should extend to delivery as well as areas of wellbeing. For instance, to support employees’ mental health, an employer might introduce mental health first aiders but also an employee assistance programme and an app for anyone who prefers a more anonymous approach.
Pippa Andrews, director of corporate business at Vitality, warns that, when building a programme, there’s a balance between providing a range of wellbeing initiatives that appeal to as many as people as possible and offering employees too much choice. “More isn’t necessarily more,” she says. “Organisations need to make it clear what’s appropriate to someone, perhaps by grouping wellbeing interventions by lifestage or interest.”
Employee data can also be used to tailor the wellbeing information that is received. “If an app has found that someone is at higher risk of a particular condition, they could be signposted to relevant support,” she adds.
However many different things are on offer, regular reviews are essential to ensure a programme remains relevant. Ed Watling, head of health and wellbeing benefits at Mattioli Woods, explains: “No wellbeing programme is a silver bullet. Something might need to be replaced if it hasn’t worked as expected but it’s also important to recognise that everything changes over time too. Ten years ago, generic health programmes were fine: today, everyone expects gender-specific health initiatives.”
Usage data can give a steer on what’s popular, or well-communicated, but employee feedback gives much more insight. Watling recommends reaching out to as many employees as possible to gauge their views. “You have to be careful you don’t ignore the silent majority. The adage about the squeaky wheel getting the oil can be very true in the workplace,” he says.
Regular reviews ensure wellbeing programmes evolve but technology can also give it the edge. As well as helping to personalise the interventions an employee interacts with, it can make health and wellbeing much more engaging.
Andrews says that data from wearables can help to encourage healthier lifestyles. “Habits change when employees start to track health data such as their sleep, heart rate or menopause symptoms,” she explains. “We’ve also seen a lot of engagement with our Vitality Age. This uses data to determine someone’s health age, which can help them see where and how to make improvements.”
As well as helping to personalise an employee’s health and wellbeing interactions, technology has been a gamechanger in the type of things we can do. “You can have a meditation or yoga session, get some physiotherapy or see a GP online. It makes it so much easier for employees to look after their health,” says Clark.
And these interventions are likely to be just the beginning. AI will enable smart health monitoring, where even small changes can be picked up instantly and appropriate changes or treatment administered. This could remove the need for expensive medical interventions as well as reducing sickness absence by helping employees stay well.
In the future, technology will probably hold the answer to the value a wellbeing programme delivers to an organisation but, for now, the number crunching lies firmly with the employer and its advisers.
Knowing where to start isn’t easy. “It’s important to measure something,” says Liggins. “I’d recommend picking something that’s meaningful to the organisation, for instance sickness absence levels or employee turnover. This will give a starting point so you can see whether wellbeing initiatives have been effective.”
These metrics also make it relatively straightforward to determine a return on investment, and justify wellbeing spend to those with an eye on the finances. However, increasingly, employers are looking at the value that wellbeing delivers.
Clark says it makes more sense to look at value. “A return on investment calculation strengthens the case for expenditure but wellbeing is about people so it should be about more than the financial return,” she explains.
The trouble is, says Watling, the value on investment is much more difficult to measure. “You’re looking at the return much more in the round so there are lots of things that could be included,” he says. “For example, an organisation might want to factor in employee engagement, reputational benefits, health and safety risk and talent attraction and retention.”
Whether an organisation decides to stick with one simple metric such as sickness absence to determine the effectiveness of the wellbeing programme, or monitor every fluctuation in the health of the organisation, Watling says the results should be positive. “Wellbeing is good for the bottom line,” he says. “Employees struggling with health issues aren’t productive. Investing in their wellbeing can make them feel healthier, happier and more valued.”