Employee wellbeing
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Wellbeing and our growing understanding of how health and happiness affect performance

The concept of ‘wellbeing’ has entered global consciousness in a way that was unthinkable even 10 years ago. Today, wellbeing programmes are a common fixture in the working landscape of most large businesses, and a 2016 report from Global Wellness Institute estimated the global spend on employee wellbeing programmes as $40.7 billion. Yet, 20 years ago UK employers were only beginning to recognise they had any responsibility for workplace stress. What changed in the intervening years?

The prevalence of wellbeing in the workplace today is the outcome of a variety of trends occurring in the political, economic and social domains. Current UK thinking around wellbeing at work emerged from a preoccupation with stress management in the 1980s. Then, driven by an awareness of the impact of stress at work, the emphasis was on employees managing their own stress levels. In the 1990s this perspective gradually shifted. The development of the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards for Workplace Stress meant businesses began to recognise for the first time that they had a responsibility for identifying and addressing sources of stress that originated at work.

At the same time, the language around stress gradually changed, with the term ‘wellbeing’ with its positive connotations starting to appear. This reframing was precipitated by a realisation that proactively supporting health was more productive and sustainable than trying to simply alleviate the effects of stress. While modern wellbeing programmes aren’t always integrated into a strategic whole, their commoner features like employee assistance programmes (EAPs), occupational health, and fitness facilities now appear in most large organisations.

Looking at the bigger picture

Today, we have bodies like the World Health Organisation and World Economic Forum championing wellbeing, and since 2014 health and wellbeing has featured on the agenda at Davos. Regular studies are undertaken by respected bodies like the OECD and Gallup to compare levels of wellbeing internationally. Meanwhile, in the UK David Cameron introduced the measurement of wellbeing at national level when he commissioned the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to conduct annual wellbeing surveys. He defined the exercise in Parliament as ‘an inquiry into the state of a country for the purposes of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants and the means of its future improvement.’ Significantly, this was the first instance of a governmental commitment to look beyond the economic parameters of GDP in describing the state of the nation. Perhaps more important was the intention to create a data set that would allow future policy decisions to be predicated on their positive impact on national wellbeing.

What works for wellbeing

The extensive media coverage resulting from this move and from the subsequent deliberations of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics took the language of wellbeing into the public arena. This has since carried over into the workplace, creating a new lens for viewing the relationship between employees’ health and happiness and business performance. Independent organisations like Business in the Community (BITC), Business Healthy and City Mental Health Alliance are now working hand in hand with major corporations to promote workplace wellbeing. At the same time, two organisations that exert a major influence on HR and management practice, CIPD and The Work Foundation, have made it a key priority. CIPD signally so, with the appointment to the role of President of Professor Sir Cary Cooper, who has been at the forefront of wellbeing research for decades. Through its Health at Work Policy Unit, the Work Foundation has produced a series of policy papers covering different aspects of wellbeing at work to influence government policy and business practice. And on the research front, the What Works Centre for Wellbeing has instituted a range of studies to identify which interventions are most effective, allowing businesses and policy makers to make informed choices.

At the Bank Workers Charity (BWC) we monitor new developments in the wellbeing field. What we’re seeing is a multitude of ways in which wellbeing is coming to prominence as a workplace phenomenon. Take the number of wellbeing conferences happening in the UK each year. These have increased year on year both in number and scale. In June 2016 over 200 HR directors and other senior HR decision-makers attended REBA’s Wellness Conference. Robertson Cooper’s Good Day at Work Conversation is a regular fixture in the HR calendar and the biggest event of all is the annual Health and Wellbeing at Work conference at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. This year it attracted 3,500 attendees, representing some of the UK’s biggest corporations.

Similar inroads are being made in the job market. Over the last five years, the number of wellbeing-focused posts has swelled dramatically. Within our own sector, most banks have a cohort of employees working on the wellbeing agenda usually led by someone in a senior role. We see it too in the education sector where wellbeing courses have proliferated. Indeed the National Examination Board for Occupational Safety and Health offers a National Certificate in the Management of Health and Well-being at Work, whilst Nottingham University runs an MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing.

What is also striking is the huge increase in journal features and reports covering different aspects of wellbeing. And the great majority are not academic publications, though these too have mushroomed. Most have a focus on exploring the practical application of wellbeing thinking in organisational settings; including such disparate subjects as mental health in the workplace, financial wellbeing and wellbeing apps.

Prioritising wellbeing in business

What other indications are there that businesses are treating wellbeing seriously? The most obvious sign is in the extent of resource allocated towards wellbeing programmes. A recent Virgin Pulse study found that overall, businesses are either increasing or stabilising their spend on it. There is also a growing awareness that, unlike in the US where employee health insurance costs are trackable, it is difficult for UK companies to produce reliable ROI data for wellbeing programmes. This has led to more of a value on investment approach that recognises the impact of wellbeing programmes on key business indicators like talent recruitment, employee engagement, staff retention and organisational performance. There is also evidence that businesses are now taking a more holistic approach to wellbeing. One study found that 76% of businesses were moving beyond physical wellness by taking a whole-person approach incorporating social, financial and psychological health into their wellbeing strategy.

Finally, there is evidence of a shift in the boardroom attitude towards wellbeing, even if it still has a way to go. BITC conducted an annual survey of FTSE 100 companies in which they measured the extent to which companies included wellbeing in their annual reporting. Its 2015 report found that 69% of companies reported on all five of their wellbeing categories, something inconceivable 10 years ago.

Wellbeing continues to extend its influence on social, political and economic thinking and is becoming one of the defining terms we employ to conceptualise our world. Its growth within the workplace has been significant and the signs are there that it is becoming a fixture in organisational thinking in the same way as employee engagement. On the other hand, whilst most major corporations have impressive wellbeing programmes in place, many still do not take a strategic approach. Yet all the indications are that this is where we’re headed with more businesses expanding the scope and scale of their programmes and taking a more nuanced approach to how they measure impact. At BWC our primary focus is on the wellbeing of bank workers. We are encouraged by the progress we have seen within the banking sector and in the wider business world, and we feel that the wellbeing agenda will continue to grow in significance, benefitting both business and employees in the UK.

Download our report, Looking ahead: Wellbeing at work in the banking sector, to see why, with the unique set of challenges facing the UK’s banks, prioritising employee wellbeing has become more important than ever.

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