Tackling the epidemic of non-communicable chronic diseases has been a key aim for wellbeing programmes for many years.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, other health and wellbeing interventions might pale into insignificance. Many HR personnel will be consumed with trying to help keep businesses afloat right now.
But with workers facing unprecedented stress and personal upheaval, how much is their wellbeing – particularly their mental wellbeing – likely to suffer? And crucially, how much out there in the market that claims to improve workplace wellbeing actually works?
Wellbeing has, for some years now, represented a top priority for employers’ benefits programmes. For the last three years, an unwavering 76 per cent of employers said as much in Willis Towers’ Watson’s biennial UK Benefits Trends Survey. “So, the desire is definitely there,” says Willis Towers Watson senior director, health & benefits Mark Ramsook. “But considering this figure hasn’t really changed, it begs the question: how progressive are the steps that organisations are taking?”
Nudging the needle
Some industries seem to have a better handle on wellbeing than others. For those with a big health and safety focus, wellbeing gains more traction as it is a fundamental part of the infrastructure. The top wellbeing intervention though, according to Aon’s 2020 Benefits and Trends Survey, was workstation set-up. “Still it was only at 63 per cent, and something we consider a basic requirement under health and safety legislation,” says Aon head of health management Charles Alberts
Other companies prioritise absence over prevention. “We still see the majority of energy being spent on people who are ill, as opposed to focusing on interventions that will help prevent ill health in the first place,” adds Alberts
No-one really disputes that individual wellbeing – or, in simplest terms, health and happiness – is essential. But what wellbeing actually looks like in a business context, the ability to articulate this at leadership level, to join up the dots between the cacophony of products, services and initiatives that employers have stockpiled over the years, and then to achieve a desired impact, is another thing entirely.
So, Covid-19 aside, where does this leave workplace wellbeing? Will it soon be considered a passing fad? A “we tried it, we failed” thing? Or is there concrete evidence out there to suggest that wellbeing can bring positive impacts to business?
Too many agendas
In many ways, HRDs are arguably on a hiding to nothing. They rarely have the budget or the resource, never mind any direction. Consequently, wellbeing often gets passed off on to other parts of the business. “Then you end up with too many stakeholders involved and no-one’s joining the dots,” says
Ramsook. “It’s not unusual for us to be in an initial meeting with a client and half the people there [from the client company] will never have met before. They aren’t aware of each other’s responsibilities and remits. They’re all looking at wellbeing with a personal lens.”
From the HRD’s perspective, they’re bombarded with wellbeing messages from the media and professional and trade bodies. They read that there are productivity gains to be had, but they don’t really understand how to get there, never mind how to translate all of this into language the board understands.
“Although HR people are well qualified, they don’t necessarily have the specific expertise to know where to start with wellbeing, so they need to lean on the experts,” says PES head of workplace happiness Debbie Kleiner.
In the absence of such support, wellbeing in many companies is characterised by various ad hoc initiatives – a lunch ‘n’ learn here, a workshop there, perhaps even a mindfulness app or a counselling phone line. It’s a bit akin to throwing spaghetti against the wall.
Had HRDs backed up all their disparate initiatives with some robust wellbeing work that heavily involved leaders and perhaps culture work, they would have got much more value, adds Kleiner.
Focus on end outcomes?
Data driven programmes represent the only sure-fire way to guarantee impact, says Mercer Marsh Benefits partner and workplace health consulting leader, UK & Europe Dr Wolfgang Seidl. “Unless wellbeing programmes are evidence-based, data-driven and aligned to the values of the organisation, they won’t have any impact.”
He advises collating data from various sources – from insurance providers, absence statistics, health risk assessments, employee assistance programmes and employee surveys – with a view to building a health management dashboard and tracking key metrics over time.
He says that, like any good science project, organisations should determine outcome measurements from the outset. And like any good business project, it’s imperative to provide a projected return on investment (ROI) based on the indicative cost of implementing the initiatives and the associated reduction in healthcare costs.
Or process evaluation?
Others argue that an obsession with ROI might represent the very thing causing decision paralysis around wellbeing in some companies. And, therefore, an unhelpful focal point.
Behavioural Change Specialist Dr Heather Mc Kee helps companies design and deliver wellness programmes. She suggests companies focus less on the end-game, on ROI – which she describes as an “artificial statistic”
– and more on process evaluation. “Wellbeing is never going to be
a plug in and play thing. The key is to establish a baseline measure and then assess improvements as you go along: ideally every three to six months. You need to understand was everything implemented as planned, and why aren’t certain employees getting involved? Look at what’s working and maximise that. Assess what’s not working and why. And keep everything fresh.”
Work-focused or wallpaper?
On that note, how do you ensure that the products and services you put in place will be true, effective and focused, as opposed to marketing waffle?
Flip it on its head, says Ramsook, and figure out what you’re trying to achieve first. He adds that there are several hundred apps out there, each focused just on one specific aspect of wellbeing. These don’t necessarily support a joined-up approach that helps the organisation meet its business goals.
Kleiner concurs, adding that HRDs are led to believe by some providers that they offer a full “wellbeing solution” when in fact it is just a very small part of it.
“A term used infinitum by many wellbeing providers is engagement,” says Ramsook. “How are they going to measure that? Unless they can prove it provides something sustained and measurable that evidences an individual wants to work for a company, is fulfilled and inspired, it’s not engagement. There are currently lots of non-evidence based claims like this from start-ups.”
It’s important to look at providers in detail when assessing what’s likely to work and what’s not. Psyon director of actuarial & data analytics Anna Spender says: “Look at whether there’s any clinical evidence behind their claims. Do they have any case studies – companies they’ve worked with, where they’ve had an impact. Also look at the technology aspects – the data, governance and robustness of their offering.”
Above all though, employers need to be realistic, says McKee. “You won’t change everyone. I feel like I’m raining on an employer’s parade when I say this. But it’s important to understand that everyone changes at different rates. You’re much more likely to see results if the programme supports culture change. But you have to be patient. It’s a two to three-year programme, not a one-year thing.”
BOX: Where’s the scientific evidence for wellbeing?
There are many good pieces of research available to help employers distinguish between empirical and anecdotal evidence. Here, Dr Wolfgang Seidl of Mercer Marsh Benefits, provides four:
• Professor Dee Edington’s work related to the effectiveness of wellbeing programmes is nicely summarised in his book Zero Trends, where he provides ROI figures from many projects (literature review, meta-analysis).
• Google’s Project Aristotle homed in on the business implications of a ‘psychologically safe’ work environment, stating that the latter achieves better outcomes by exceeding targets by 17 per cent.
• Dame Carol Black’s publications, particularly with reference to mental health at work and potential absenteeism and presenteeism costs.
• Mercer Marsh Benefits’ research into the outcomes of psychological pathways, achieving 9 per cent reduction in health insurance claims, 16 per cent reduction in average cost of claims, 60 per cent improvement in patient outcomes, 41 per cent reduction in absence.