Best fit

Attaching a figure to the bottom-line benefits of ensuring staff wellbeing is hard, but it's self-evident that healthy minds and bodies at work are a pre-requisite for top performance. It starts with showing people fairness and respect, says Emma De Vita.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Take heed. During these tough times, the new battle for survival won't be won with smart technology or clever cost-savings. No - once you've trim-med the fat from your organisation, train your spotlight on to your people's flab. What! Didn't you know that muffin tops and profits don't go hand in hand? For the enlightened employer, wellbeing is where it's at now.

The idea that a firm has a duty of care towards its employees is not a modern concept. Philanthropic bosses such as the Cadburys have long troubled themselves to look after the physical and psychological health of their workers. But what has changed is how far a company will delve into an individual's wellbeing. The modern approach goes beyond health and safety requirements and right into personal health improvement.

Why? Organisations don't usually spend money and effort on altruistic deeds. Wellbeing pays because employees who are happy and healthy in their work take fewer days off sick, are more productive and are more likely to want to stay with their organisation. Dame Carol Black, Britain's first ever National Director for Health and Work, wrote in her 2008 review of the health of the nation's working-age population: 'Good health improves an individual's quality of life, and a focus on their wellbeing can also add value to organisations by promoting better health and increasing motivation and engagement of employees, in turn helping to drive increases in productivity and profitability. In other words, the benefits of health and wellbeing extend far beyond avoiding or reducing the costs of absence or poor performance.'

Incontrovertible evidence that directly links the presence of a company wellbeing strategy and improved profits cannot be made - yet. 'There isn't one piece of evidence that proves the link between employee wellbeing and increased organisational performance,' admits Michelle Mahden, a senior researcher at the Work Foundation. 'But if you look at the other end of the scale, you can see that if someone is off sick, you've lost 100% productivity. It's a blurry line to show that people who are well boost productivity - it's a very intuitive link. But there is evidence to suggest that it is things around the workplace that encourage the wellbeing of employees, and that indirectly improving the working environment will affect discretionary effort and therefore organisational performance.'

People who feel good have a positive outlook. And isn't that what we need right now? According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development's 2008 Absence Management annual survey report of 819 UK-based HR professionals, average employee absence is eight days per year. Levels are highest in the public sector, while manufacturing and production employees score the lowest. Furthermore, the average cost of absence has increased to £666 per employee per year from the 2007 figure of £659.

The main cause of short-term absence for both manual and non-manual workers is minor illness such as colds, flu and stomach upsets; non-manual workers are also highly prone to stress, musculoskeletal injuries, back pain and home and family responsibilities. Among office workers, stress is the prime cause of long-term absence. 'Nine out of 10 of our members say that absence is a significant or a very significant cost to the business,' says Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD. 'These issues are clearly bringing home to employers that it's in their interest to support employee wellbeing and take a more holistic perspective on the issue, rather than just managing absence.'

He believes it's incorrect to think of wellbeing as just an individual's physical health; it should also encompass psychological and social health. 'There's no point in providing various wellbeing benefits like advice on healthy eating or holding exercise classes on site if individuals are unsure about their roles and responsibilities, have excessive workloads or are being bullied by their line manager. The starting point to supporting and promoting wellbeing in the workplace has to be good people management and effective work organisation. Good line management is the most important of the characteristics of a high-quality workplace that has high levels of commitment and low absence rates.'

An employer that shows it cares about you personally will be more likely to attract you - and retain you for longer. Stephen Overell of the Work Foundation writes in Inwardness: The rise of meaningful work that peoples' needs in advanced post-industrial western countries have changed throughout the course of the late 20th century: 'The 'orien- tation towards achievement, income maximisation and security has given way gradually over time to other priorities such as self-expression, self-realisation, lifestyle, aesthetic considerations and fulfilment.'

In other words, the cult of the individual is in the ascendant at work, and an organisation that can prove that it can cater to 'me, me, me' will have the edge over its competitors. In Employee Well-Being Support (Wiley 2008), Ivan Robertson and Gordon Tinline write: 'From a talent management perspective, an organisation that with a reputation for psychological wellbeing (PWB) amongst its workforce is also more likely to be able to attract the best ... as people are increasingly seeing PWB and work-life balance as being equally as important factors as economic reward.'

A minority of companies have been convinced enough by the threefold argument for investing in a wellbeing strategy - lower absentee rates, higher employee engagement and talent attraction/retention - to spend serious money. But many others remain unsure about what exactly the nebulous term 'wellbeing' means for them. Robertson and Tinline confirm that 'there remains a need to demonstrate that psychological wellbeing is not a "touchy feely" issue or something that organisations need not concern themselves with, and that its benefits are tangible and important.'

Peter Baker of the Mens Health Forum (MHF), who has worked with BT and Royal Mail on wellbeing initiatives, agrees. 'It's the kind of thing that companies would like to do but they still struggle with making a commitment to doing it because they are not yet convinced that it is of economic benefit to them. They might think that it is a nice thing to do but they don't see that it will make an actual difference to the bottom line.'

So, what should a wellbeing strategy comprise? There's no definitive answer. It can range from a costly head-to-toe, on-site health service (see Citi panel), to free ice cream and a brilliant culture (see Happy panel). It depends on the sector you work in, how big your organisation is, and how much you have to spend. A large firm can afford to have a complete benefits package, but smaller employers have to be more creative. The good news is that wellbeing is more a management approach than a checklist of benefits.

According to the Work Foundation's Mahden, the key to creating a sense of wellbeing in the office is to focus on 'good work'. 'It's about having secure employment, work that's not repetitive or monotonous,' she says. 'It's about having work that provides autonomy, control and discretion, and a good balance between effort and reward that goes beyond money. It's also about being treated with respect by your colleagues and having procedural justice in the workplace so that you can be confident that you're being treated fairly.' And to know how you fit into the organisation. Poor line managers should not be tolerated.

'Stress and what is commonly called mental anxiety and depression tend to be the biggest causes of mental ill heath at work,' she adds. 'But there is a difficulty with that because, to a certain extent, an element of stress is good for you. It's the interaction between the amount of stress and the amount of support you have to go with it that is key, and it's about finding the right balance for an individual.'

Managers need to be trained to spot signs of stress among staff and to intervene early using occupational health advice. But it's also about looking at job design and making sure that an individual has the right amount of Eustress (good stress) to thrive and as little Distress (bad stress) as possible. But it's a hard line to tread when a great deal of life's stress is created outside work, and employers find it an uncomfortable one to cross.

For those considering creating a wellbeing strategy, the CIPD's Willmott recommends that you get data on absentee levels and the costs that go with them. Then conduct running employee attitude surveys to find out how people feel about working for the firm. See how you can fix things - and don't be afraid to listen to your staff's suggestions. Private healthcare, employee assistance programmes, on-site health suites, lunchtime exercise classes, stop-smoking programmes, chip-free days, free fruit, cycle-to-work schemes, free health MOTs, flexible working, and interactive online programmes can all be part of the wellbeing mix.

Graham Johnson worked for ICI, Nissan and the NHS before joining Bupa, where he is now operations manager. Bupa Wellness is responsible for the wellbeing strategy at 70% of FTSE-100 companies. Johnson has seen at first hand the benefits that private healthcare, employee assistance programmes and early intervention can bring to a company. 'If an individual is referred to an occupational health adviser after repeated sickness absence and we tell the employer that this person needs cognitive behavioural therapy, we can offer it within a couple of weeks.

'Within the NHS, the waiting list would be eight or nine months. You can see the benefits for the employer because it means that this person is going to get an early intervention and probably get back to work much quicker than if they went to the GP.'

Early intervention in employee health pays off, especially for men. Baker at the MHF, who worked closely with Black's team on her review, campaigns for greater health awareness among men at work. 'Men don't go to the doctor but they do go to work,' he says. 'They don't use GPs because they are reluctant to ask for help for just about anything. Men often find it inconvenient to see the doctor because they're much more likely than women to be in full-time work and to be working longer hours, and most GPs are still open only between 9am and 6pm. Men tend to delay seeking help till they're in pain and can't stand it any more.'

Baker has worked with employers to bring health services to men in the workplace. A 16-week programme called 'Workfit' that the MHF designed for BT resulted in 16,500 employees signing up, three-quarters of them men. They were offered access to a health improvement programme online that looked mainly at diet and physical activity. Each week, a participant was e-mailed an instruction: go for a lunchtime walk, say, or swap crisps for an apple. The small things add up, and by the end of the scheme, the average weight lost by the participants was 2.5kgs.

In another initiative in London for bus-drivers, employees have access to a touring 'health bus', where they can have checks for things like diabetes and heart disease. By catching these conditions early, savings can be made in the long term.

If the panoply of wellbeing options is making you anxious, there's no need to reach for the stress ball yet. Just remember, for a healthy bottom line, think healthy minds and waistlines. Or as the Romans used to say: mens sana in corpore sano. In hard times, it's the fittest who survive.


Green looks after the wellbeing of about 50,000 staff at the global financial services company. He is based in Citi's Canary Wharf EMEA head office, which has one of the most advanced healthcare centres in the Square Mile. On the 36th floor, it has impressive views over the O2 Dome. Managed by Bupa Wellness since 2004, it's a welcoming place with 20 staff, including a nurse, GP, dentist, physiotherapists, sports masseuse, chiropractor and chiropodist, servicing 12,000 employees.

With his pearly white teeth and manicured nails, Green is an apt poster boy for the centre. 'My definition of employee wellbeing is promoting positive health from everything from a toothache to supporting someone going through a divorce,' he says. Citi has invested a seven-figure sum on getting the centre right. 'It's about making this the place where people want to work,' he explains. 'It's about us being the employer of choice.'

Cultivating a sense of goodwill and drawing high-flying recruits are the main benefits he points to, but Bupa claims to saves Citi 20,358 working hours a year, recouping up to £814,000 for the bank.

But there's more to Citi's wellbeing strategy than the health centre. There's comprehensive private medical insurance too, an employee assistance programme run by Axa Icas, and even an online concierge service. 'It's like you want to come to work,' says Green. 'From a benefits perspective, it is about supporting you, making your life easier.'

The centre also runs health awareness promotions and educational events that educate staff in initiatives that it likes to summarise as 'education, prevention, treatment'. Testicular cancer, giving up smoking, heart disease and mole screening have all been recent subjects. With the huge and rising costs of private medical insurance, it makes sense to ensure early intervention.

'When I first came into this role, there was an arrogance and an expectation there, but the healthcare centre has turned into something that is incredibly well valued by our staff.' And with all the financial market tension now, the masseuses might well have their work cut out.


It's a big name to live up to, but Henry Stewart's IT training company certainly seems to have succeeded. Last year, Happy was rated by the FT and the Great Place to Work Institute as the second-best place to work in the UK.

The east London offices might be scruffy, but the way Happy workers walk with a bounce in their step suggests a sense of wellbeing that should be the envy of every small or medium-sized business. 'Our core principle is that people work best when they feel good about themselves,' says Stewart. 'For management, it's about enabling people to feel valued and motivated. Key enablers for that are that they have the freedom and trust to do the job they want to do, the way they want to, and the flexibility and work/life balance.'

Stewart set up the company 20 years ago wanting to create a working environment that was a conscious reaction to the controlling and hierarchical way of management he had experienced. 'I was escaping from awful cultures ... I wanted to find out what makes an organisation principled, effective and a great place to work, and that has been the journey.'

What's Happy's secret to creating a strong sense of wellbeing? 'Everyone ascribes to the principle that everyone works best when they feel good,' explains Stewart. 'You don't always get it right, but it always comes back to that.'

This translates into a culture where mistakes are celebrated; when a new trainer had a disastrous session, he was given a hug and trusted to get it right the next time round. 'At the core here is that everyone is positive and supportive, so we recruit for that as well as for skills,' he adds.

Happy makes sure every manager or 'co-ordinator' is supportive, and if it doesn't work out with a particular employee, co-ordinators are changed. Above all, managers are recruited for their management skills, and not for the sake of the next step up the ladder.

Flexible working is fine, so long as it can be made to work. And Stewart opposes the long-hours culture; the company works with an employee to sort out the problem in order to avoid burnout and poor customer service.

'When our customers come in every day, I want them to meet unstressed, fun people, and to think that this is a great place to come to.'


David Fairhurst is in charge of McDonald's HR in the UK, which encompasses around 67,000 employees, half of them under 21. Dealing with the challenges of a teenage workforce, many of whom are overlooked by other firms, Fairhurst is up against a company reputation for low pay and low-status work: the infamous 'McJob'.

'A lot of people shy away from the commerciality of human beings,' he says, 'and the minute you talk HR or wellbeing, they pretend there is not a profitable aim. But all businesses are in it to make money. The great news is that the "employee engagement through to profit" chain is very clear.' Fairhurst believes that a strong sense of employee wellbeing and high employee engagement makes a business more profitable.

But this can't be created without research into staff needs. 'The millenial generations coming through can be easily misunderstood by middle-class white males in many organisations who think that they know what is good for them. Without that quality of insight, everything is going to be hit-and-miss.'

Employee engagement, he believes, comes down to two things: competence to do the job well, and confidence - a real issue for many of McDonald's workers. 'We often pick people up who have been the most marginalised people in society, so their degree of competence might start at a lower level, which is why we've got nearly 4,000 people coming to do English and Maths with us. I don't think that's what people think of when they think of wellbeing. You might be talking about very clever occupational health schemes and stress management, when the source of stress is that they can't read.'

Fairhurst has been busy since joining in 2005. McDonald's launched its virtual learning and lifestyle website 'Our Lounge' in 2006, which helps staff to gain GCSE-equivalents in Maths and English. And it has fought to reclaim its reputation as an employer to boost staff morale. Fairhurst says it's working. 'Our absence level is less than 1%, and our level of engagement is 87%.' Clearly, he's lovin' it.

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