Coloured strings on a loom representing a successful case for wellbeing
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How do you successfully argue the case for wellbeing to a sceptical board?

In the last five years, wellbeing has risen up the corporate agenda, with more businesses than ever making it a strategic priority. We’ve seen a steady but continuous increase in the number of employers including coverage of their wellbeing activities within their annual reports, a sign of its rising profile.

Yet in some businesses it can still be a struggle to get airtime for the wellbeing agenda at board level. If your organisation doesn’t currently prioritise wellbeing, what steps can you take to make the case that it’s of strategic interest to your board? And how can you gain their support in promoting it across your business?

1. Prove the value of investing

The motivator for any board is benefit for the business, yet employee wellbeing can be hard to capture in purely monetary terms. In the USA, building the case for wellbeing in terms of return on investment (ROI) is substantially easier, as businesses already foot the bill for healthcare costs. So it’s possible for them to track the impact of wellbeing programmes through their effect on referrals and, ultimately, through the scale of insurance premiums. As a consequence, much of the hard data on ROI on wellbeing programmes comes from American studies, with estimates varying from 2:1 to 6:1.

Here in the UK, it’s more difficult to measure impact in quite such explicit ways. So how do you persuade a sceptical board? Increasingly those trying to obtain buy-in from the c-suite have moved toward a value on investment (VOI) approach. This entails focusing on a set of business priorities on which an effective wellbeing strategy is proven to have a positive impact. Sickness absence and presenteeism, staff recruitment and retention, employee engagement, performance and productivity are important to most businesses. And studies abound testifying that employees’ wellbeing has a big impact on these areas. So it’s important to have this information at your fingertips. Use these two studies as a starting point: Commitment to employee well-being aids productivity and The business case for wellbeing and engagement: Literature review.

But persuasive though such external data can be, it’s also important you draw on metrics from your own business to strengthen your argument. Use your organisation’s data relating to the frequency and cost of sickness absence, employee engagement and use of employee assistance programmes and occupational health services to reinforce your case.

2. Link it to strategic priorities

Every employer is different, so every case for wellbeing needs to be too. In building your case, it’s important to link the impact of wellbeing programmes to your own businesses’ strategic priorities; this is how you’ll capture your board’s attention. These will vary between businesses, but typically include reducing business costs like sickness absence, attracting and retaining the best people, having a strong brand reputation, or improving employee engagement.

Consider whether your board will also respond to less directly financial goals such as the desire to be perceived as a good employer, creating a positive organisational culture, addressing duty of care issues, or responding to shareholder expectations. Demonstrating a clear link between the introduction of wellbeing programmes and improvement in these areas is key. You could also collect data on the wellbeing initiatives of your competitors to better understand what the wellbeing landscape looks like in your sector. If your competitors are investing in this area you probably need to do so to avoid appearing less attractive to potential recruits.

You may also find it helpful to draw attention to wider social trends likely to impact on your organisation. For example, many businesses are only now waking up to the implications of an ageing workforce on workforce planning. There are currently 10 million people working over the age of 65, but this is going to double over the next 30 years. This is certain to impact on your business, as with more people working until they’re significantly older, long-term health conditions and disabilities will become more common. This makes it easier to argue for the introduction of wellbeing programmes, especially those of a preventative nature, such as fitness regimes and nutritional education that can build employees’ resilience and help them stay fit and healthy for longer.

3. Gather the evidence

Then it’s really about pulling together the right evidence to support your business case for wellbeing. This is likely to be a combination of internal and external data. For example, if your business is prioritising the recruitment and retention of talent, drawing on external data could mean referring to supportive current research, such as the One Medical Group study. This found that two out of three full-time professionals prioritised better health and wellbeing benefits over other types of perks. This suggests – as do plenty of other studies – that employers who wish to attract and retain the best talent would be wise to develop their health and wellbeing offering. Combining this with local data on turnover rates and exit interview responses will help you build a persuasive argument.

4. Find a champion

Identify whether any of your board members already has an interest in workplace wellbeing. If you can enlist them as a champion they may be able to smooth the way and elicit support from their colleagues.

5. Prove by piloting

One of the problems you might face in winning over your board is that many businesses operate from a short-term perspective, focusing primarily on the need to protect share price and uphold shareholder value. This can mean your board may be less interested in initiatives that bear fruit over the longer term. To address this, you could demonstrate value by piloting wellbeing initiatives that are likely to have swifter impact, such as programmes relating to sleep or to stress management. Once you’ve tested them in specific parts of your business, use the outcomes as case studies alongside other supportive data to add weight to your business case.

It’s possible to take a bottom-up approach to wellbeing, and plenty of organisations have a wellbeing agenda that’s driven by a hard core of enthusiasts who argue successfully for the introduction of wellbeing initiatives. Yet to really embed wellbeing within your business you do need buy-in from the top too. With the wealth of research available, it’s now possible to make a strong case for wellbeing. If you’re serious about it, engaging successfully with your board is the best way to ensure that wellbeing programmes become a vital and sustainable part of your organisational culture.

Read the first part in this series from Paul on taking wellbeing from ad hoc to solid strategy in your organisation.