Need to know:
- Employee wellbeing can have a significant impact on the workplace, affecting everything from performance and productivity through to engagement, sickness absence, and staff turnover.
- Minor illnesses, such as headaches, can often mask more serious health and wellbeing issues, such as stress.
- Creating an open culture where employees feel their health and wellbeing is important to the organisation encourages them to make improvements and seek support where necessary.
Whether it is their mental, physical or emotional wellbeing, it pays to look after the health and happiness of employees. But, with so much support available under the wellbeing banner, it is important for an employer to address the issues facing its workforce.
Close links between wellbeing and performance mean it is an issue that employers cannot afford to ignore, says Beate O’Neil, head of wellbeing consulting at Punter Southall Health and Protection. “If an employee isn’t feeling well or is distracted by something, it will affect their concentration, reducing productivity and potentially leading to absence,” she explains. “It can also affect morale across the workplace, especially where colleagues think someone’s not pulling their weight.”
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Left unchecked, the ramifications of overlooking employee wellbeing can be extremely serious. This is particularly the case with mental health issues because these are often more difficult for employers to address, says Lucile Kamar, equalities manager at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. “Employers need to approach mental wellbeing in the same way they would physical health,” she adds. “Within the construction sector, research suggests that people are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than from on-site accidents.”
Reasons for absence
Understanding the reasons behind absence can help employers find appropriate ways to support employees. Figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence management survey 2016, published in November 2016, show that while minor illnesses, such as colds and stomach upsets, are the most common cause of short-term absence, accounting for some 75% of this, stress comes in second place at 13%. Also in the top five are musculoskeletal injuries, mental ill-health, and family and caring responsibilities.
Concerning in themselves, the statistics may also be hiding the real causes of absence, says Jay Brewer, head of clinical wellbeing and employee wellbeing lead at Nuffield Health. “Minor illnesses, such as colds, headaches and stomach bugs, may seem inevitable but they can often be a mask for other health issues such as stress, emotional problems or a lack of employee engagement,” he explains.
A proactive approach to absence management can help an organisation get a better handle on why employees are not at work. “[Employers] need processes and procedures to support employees who are absent,” says O’Neil. “This will enable [them] to help them access treatment or support quickly so they can come back to work much sooner but it will also highlight any issues in the workplace that may need to be addressed.”
Taking a proactive approach also prevents an employee developing other health issues. It is common for an employee with a physical problem to develop mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety if they are absent in the long term.
While it is important to manage absence effectively, creating the right workplace culture is key to preventing these problems. This culture needs to foster health and wellbeing, enabling employees to take steps to improve their health or seek support where necessary.
A range of tools can be used to help create this culture. These can include employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which can be particularly good at supporting employees with mental health, emotional and relationship problems; fitness challenges, to encourage employees to be more active; and mental health awareness training to help employees and their line managers identify emerging issues.
Flexible working is often an important part of this too, especially as more employees find themselves caring for children or parents. Mike Blake, compliance director at Willis Towers Watson, says: “Nine to five doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not always possible but allowing employees to determine when they work can make a big difference to their wellbeing.”
It is also prudent to monitor employee wellbeing. This could include regularly surveying employees to find out what pressures they are under, says Brewer. “This can highlight any potential issues before they take hold,” he adds. “Early intervention is key to preventing long-term issues with employee wellbeing.”
But, regardless of the tools and policies implemented, senior management are often key to establishing the right workplace culture. “The people leading [an] organisation have to set an example,” explains Blake. “Whether it’s eating healthily, leaving work on time or talking about mental health, if the chief executive is doing it, it will encourage employees to do the same.”
Accenture UK puts wellbeing at the forefront of its culture
Supporting the health and wellbeing of its more than 13,000 employees in the UK and Ireland is a key strategy for global professional services firm Accenture, with the employer aiming to be the most inclusive and diverse organisation in the world by 2020. Tony Horan, head of human capital and diversity at Accenture UK and Ireland, says: “Our health and wellbeing approach is based around four pillars: healthy heart and lungs; wrist, core and spine; nutrition, hydration and digestion; and sleep and mental health.”
As well as a range of benefits, including health assessments, subsidised gym membership and confidential counselling, creating an environment where employee wellbeing is at the fore is central to the strategy. “Health awareness and prevention are essential,” explains Horan. “No one can be at their best if they don’t feel their best,” Horan explains.
Accenture offers a number of initiatives to enable this, including Bupa Boost, which uses social media and a little healthy competition to engage employees; health coaches, allowing employees to access personalised support; and a variety of employee-led sports and activity clubs from hill walking and football to yoga.
Breaking down stigmas around mental health is another important strand of the strategy. To support this objective, the organisation introduced its Mental Health Allies Programme in 2014. Employees who want to be part of this attend an interactive training workshop co-developed with mental health charity Mind. Once completed, they receive a lanyard so they can be easily identified as trusted advocates by colleagues facing mental health challenges.
“We’ve recently trained our 1,000th ally, which means they have a significant presence in the [organisation],” says Horan. “This really helps to normalise conversations around mental health and promote a culture of openness that supports employee wellbeing.”