Britain has a workplace wellbeing problem. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that a record 2.5 million people are unable to work due to long-term illness – a figure driven in large part by stress, depression and anxiety, says Cary Cooper.

In recent years, business leaders have made employee wellbeing a key priority. However, when economic crises force businesses to tighten their belts, support services are often one of the first things to be cut. While this may deliver short-term cost savings, it can actually have a negative impact on productivity and therefore in the long run it can be more costly to businesses.

Last month the National Forum for Health & Wellbeing at Work (NFHWW), a group comprised of more than 50 senior leaders representing the biggest brands and organisations in the UK, of which I am co-chair, issued a call to fellow business leaders to ensure they sustain their present commitment towards health and wellbeing. We also called on the UK Government to consider how it can better support business through incentivising health and wellbeing provisions and initiatives.

We know that this is not always simple, and will require investment of time and money during difficult economic times. But we also know that a happy workforce is a productive workforce. So, our belief is that this will benefit businesses, employers, and the wider economy.


The UK is the least productive country in the G7, and 17th out of the G20 on productivity per capita, which, of course, is a huge barrier to economic growth.

High rates of long-term illness contribute to this, by putting employees out of action for large periods of time. The cost of ill health to the UK Government is estimated to be around £50 billion a year, as a result of benefit payments, additional health costs, taxes and National Insurance.

On top of that, high numbers of employees are struggling with anxiety, depression, or a general lack of motivation but not taking leave (ie presenteeism). Many people are simply trying to grind through these issues, or are using holiday allowances to recover (ie leavism). In doing so, they are only extending the problem. We need to make sure they have access to the support and provisions they need to address these issues and help them get back on track.

Technology has also allowed us to develop unhealthy working patterns. British employees email constantly, in and out of work hours. That undermines workers capacity to unwind after hours. It also prevents employees from working effectively because of the distractions and unending email overload.

The basic fact is that happy, motivated employees are more productive. Their minds are fresher and sharper, and, because they feel valued and trusted, they are eager to do a good job.

Achieving a happier, more productive workforce requires an investment of time and resources to really understand employees’ workloads, lives, concerns and wellbeing. It also means setting clear boundaries between work and home life.

Emotionally intelligent line management

Line managers play a key role in supporting wellbeing in the workplace. They are responsible for understanding their colleagues’ workload, motivating them and spotting the signs when people are struggling.

Unfortunately, we tend to promote people to these positions based on their technical expertise in most organisations rather than on their emotional intelligence (EQ) or social and interpersonal skills.

It is important to have line managers who have good social skills. If employees feel comfortable opening-up to their line managers about their work-related and even personal concerns, it will be much easier to support and help them sort them out.

Some employees, though, still might not freely offer up their concerns. Here, it’s important that time and resources are reserved to make sure that line managers are trained to spot the signs of work-related illness early, so they can be addressed before developing into serious problems.

It is also important that line managers understand how to make sure the workforce consistently feels valued. Prioritising praising employees for what they do well, rather than nit-picking about the things they could improve, will motivate them to perform to the best of their ability. Managing colleagues by ‘praise and reward’ rather than ‘fault-finding’ delivers to the bottom line!

It is important, therefore, to promote and recruit line managers, from shopfloor to topfloor, based on parity between social and interpersonal skills and their technical skills, one without the other reduces performance and likely ill-health consequences.

Emotional bookkeeping

Measurement is important for all aspects of business; there’s no reason employee wellbeing should be any different.

Businesses should periodically gather simple, robust data on employee wellbeing. Doing so will allow them to track wellbeing over time. This should make it easier to assess the performance of measures taken to improve wellbeing are performing. It could also allow employers to identify spikes in stress and anxiety amongst their workforce, and zero in on the causes.

The best approach to this will be different for each business, and might take some time to develop but it will pay off in the long run. Starting with small-scale pilots and consulting employees about the best metrics should ensure buy in, whilst helping businesses devise a practical, effective measurement system. These metrics could be actioned by the HR lead on wellbeing, factors like labour turnover, stress-related sickness, presenteeism, and employees perception of their line manager, their workload, their hours of work, their right to disconnect, etc.

Companies that invest in tracking this data, and acting on the insights it provides, will feel the benefits in the form of increased productivity, job satisfaction, and ability to attract and retain talent.

The path to productivity

For Britain to conquer its productivity problem, we need to prioritise the wellbeing of employees. This entails investing the time and resources to create a sensitive, emotionally-engaged management culture and accepting greater work and life integration.

That’s why the NFHWW is calling for employers to maintain their spending in these areas – because businesses themselves will feel the benefit, in the form of productivity gains, less burnout and greater retention of talent.

To see a real impact, we are going to need buy-in from everyone – government, businesses and employees all across the UK. With that, we should be on our way to a stronger economy and a happier nation.


Sir Cary Cooper is Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Alliance Manchester Business School.





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.