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Workplace wellbeing programmes are becoming increasingly holistic and strategic.

The past five years have seen a quantum leap in the way UK businesses think about employee wellbeing.

Historically, the organisational approach to wellbeing has been to create a broad range of programmes and services designed to improve the physical and psychological health of employees. This included the likes of occupational health services, EAPs, healthy eating schemes and gym facilities.

Important thought these things are, and not wishing to diminish their value, they only represent a part of the story. The world has moved on. More businesses every year are taking a strategic approach. We’re seeing organisations integrating their health programmes into a wider set of policies and practices, including work-life balance, organisational culture and workplace mental health, to create a wellbeing offering much more likely to embed.

A manifestation of this more sophisticated approach, and one that I welcome, is the recognition that to improve employee wellbeing, you need to take account of the full range of factors that influence it. And the reality is that many of these originate outside the workplace.

New frontiers in wellbeing

When people struggle with significant personal difficulties, whether it’s in their personal relationships, because of financial difficulties or following a bereavement, it will have an adverse impact on their wellbeing, and that doesn’t stop just because they come into work. As businesses begin to fashion wellbeing programmes, this awareness is helping to shape their content. So what we’re now seeing is forward-thinking employers taking a more holistic, ‘whole person’ view of wellbeing, which takes account of the impact of such personal concerns on employees.

Ten years ago, it would have been unusual to find businesses providing advice and guidance to improve financial literacy, but now it’s an increasingly common feature of organisational wellbeing programmes. Why? Because financial problems are now known to be strongly associated with mental health problems like anxiety and depression – two of the most common causes of long term sickness absence. Research by Barclays found that employees’ financial difficulties cost a business 4% of  its productivity, so there’s every incentive to put support in place. There is therefore, a clear convergence of interest in providing such programmes, with both the employee and the business benefiting from their uptake.

I’m particularly pleased that many of the more recent wellbeing innovations are preventative. Historically, wellbeing programmes have been excellent in reactive ways; helping people when they are already unwell or in difficulty. Now businesses are looking for more than that, and there is a growing appreciation that prevention can be better than cure. Below are a few more examples of innovative approaches that are both preventative and operating at the holistic end of the spectrum.

Mental health training for line managers

Attitudes towards mental health are starting to change for the better, with many organisations making mental health at work a strategic priority. However, until recently, what’s been missing from all but a few organisational approaches, is a focus on line managers. Enabling line managers to respond with sensitivity when an employee experiences a mental health problem and equipping them with the knowledge to direct them towards appropriate sources of support, is the best way to change the culture around mental health at work.

To do this, line managers don’t need to be experts in mental health, but they do require good people skills and a basic understanding of mental health conditions. We’re now beginning to see employers providing training that moves beyond developing awareness about mental health, to giving their line managers the skills and confidence to have those difficult conversations. As a result, more employees are experiencing their manager’s intervention as both positive and supportive

Sleep programmes

It’s perhaps surprising to learn that 25% of the UK population suffer some form of sleep disorder. Sleep deprivation is associated with debilitating conditions such as stroke, cancer and obesity. But it can also result in significant reduction in cognitive capacity in the day-to-day; affecting judgement, creative thinking and ability to concentrate – all of which can have a serious impact at work. A BUPA survey found that workers deprived of sleep cost the UK economy an estimated £1.6bn a year, (that’s £280 for each worker). As businesses digest the impact of this, some are providing employees with information about techniques for obtaining better quality sleep. Others are offering “effective sleep training” as part of their wellbeing programmes, while tech companies like Google and some more traditional companies like PwC and KPMG have introduced nap pods.

Supporting working carers’ wellbeing

Right now in the UK, there are over three million people combining work with caring responsibilities; more than two million of whom work full-time. Lots of carers really struggle in managing the often conflicting demands of caring and work. Each year, the strain of doing so results in many deciding to leave employment. Building a carers strategy that encourages flexible approaches to work, is becoming a more familiar feature of the wellbeing landscape. It can be the starting point for putting in place the kind of long-term support that reduces the strain on carers and sidesteps their need to make a painful choice between these two important areas of their lives.

Some of these programmes are closer than others to becoming a day-to-day reality in the majority of UK business but they’re all signs of a change in the direction of travel; a measure I’m convinced, of our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the drivers of employee wellbeing.