Nick Burns: Proving the value of wellbeing initiatives requires a cultural shift

The results of the CIPD’s latest annual survey of wellbeing initiatives make for stark reading. While absences may be at an all-time low – with a reported average of just 5.9 days per employee, per year – the widespread, underlying culture of presenteeism in UK workplaces remains largely unchanged. According to the survey, 83 per cent of respondent leaders say their staff work while unwell; furthermore, over a third of organisational leaders reported an increase in stress-related absence in 2019.

This represents a significant hit to productivity for UK business. And yet, organisations are still looking slow on their uptake of holistic and integrated strategies, failing to take into account the full spectrum of “wellbeing” factors – which could immeasurably boost employee engagement levels.

One of the challenges to provision of such holistic strategies is the difficulty HR leaders face in making plausible business cases for increased wellbeing investment. This, coupled with a shifting benefits cost landscape, means that HR leaders face a tricky time implementing comprehensive and effective wellbeing initiatives.

As detailed in our latest Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking Survey, employers are getting it right in some areas. There has been a trend over the past 12 months for increasing fairness in physical and emotional wellbeing benefits provision, with higher proportions of organisations applying a standard set of rules to employees – regardless of job level, category, or tenure.

However, wellbeing doesn’t just concern workers’ physical or mental state; increasingly, employees expect their companies to take a vested interest in their financial health, and future career opportunities. Only in linking these concerns can employers provide genuinely holistic wellbeing.

Wellbeing has risen up the agenda

HR executives across the board will no doubt have direct experience of grappling with “wellbeing” as a topic, given its emergence as a priority for talent in the UK labour market.

The surge in wellbeing initiatives can be attributed, in part, to changes in UK employment law. Legislation in this area has traditionally been driven through health & safety regulations, focused on the physical aspects of working practice – protecting those workers engaged in manual labour, engaged in lifting heavy loads, for instance. However, there has been a notable trend toward extending the notion of employee wellbeing; introducing new physical and mental factors, often led by absence data.

A great example has been in the household construction industry, where rising incidence levels of skin cancer have been a catalyst for launching skin and sun-safety education initiatives, and subsidised screening procedures. These benefits have switched the workforce on to wider aspects of their wellbeing.

There is room for more rigorous wellbeing legislation, but this has fallen by the wayside in favour of voluntary initiatives. Well-intended guidelines, as opposed to laws, can often fall astray: one such example would be the ability for organisations to opt out individually from the requirements of the working time directive. Ostensibly, this was designed to provide the benefit of running a business with greater flexibility. In reality, however, it’s created the potential for unregulated longer working patterns that actually undermine productivity.

The obstacles to proving initiative value

Before they can expand their currently wellbeing focus, and supply holistic wellbeing provisions across the board, businesses face several challenges in proving the need for increased investment.

The first obstacle relates to the growth in data relating to wellbeing – available from such a disparate variety of sources – which continues to blossom. Organisations often struggle to parse the immense amount of data available. In particular, employers have difficulty determining the integrity of information from competing sources, and cross-referencing data sets.

The other challenge that HR functions face in proving the value of wellbeing initiatives, to business leaders, is that improvements in wellbeing rarely conform to traditional 12-month fiscal reporting cycles. Three to five-year timelines for the realisation of results are more realistic. Business leaders must realise that patience is key in this arena – but, of course, the onus rests on HR leaders to prove the value in waiting for the proof.

Communication is vital in overcoming both these obstacles. It’s all very well aiming for a culture of wellbeing – but if your benefits strategy does not match your business needs, and isn’t embraced by your employees, it will risk failure. The only way to avoid this wasted investment is to ensure your communications are genuinely engaging your target audience. The reality is, however, that organisations are still chronically underinvesting in communicating their benefits well: according to our last figures, just 43 per cent of organisations poll their employees for their views, and only 27 per cent have a pre-defined communications budget.

Success isn’t just spending – its a cultural shift

Some sectors have seen greater uptake of wellbeing initiatives, where organisations with bigger budgets have been able to implement more sophisticated wellbeing programmes. However, there does exist some evidence to suggest that there is, in fact, no direct correlation between wellbeing spend and effectiveness.

Given that, according to Gallagher research, 71 per cent of employers say they struggle with the rising cost of benefits, this will surely be a relief to cash-strapped HR leaders.

In fact, success really lies finding solutions that shift an organisation’s culture, without costing the earth. Most organisations have some awareness and understanding of the commercial benefits of promoting employee wellbeing; but in reality, there can be drastic differences in quality from one company to the next. More often than not, those lagging behind are the employers who fail to back fully integrated initiatives – financially, or otherwise.

At the same time, there is still work to be done in educating employees. For example, mental wellbeing has rightly increased in prominence as an issue for corporate Britain, over the past decade. However, the stigma associated with mental health issues proves resistant – and is often self-imposed. Work still need to be done to help in understanding the complex issues of managing the effects of mental ill-health in the workplace, and in boosting awareness among the workforce.

Fundamentally, the success of such initiatives depends on business leaders accepting that a budget must be allocated to these initiatives in some form. Finding a budget for integrated approaches will not only allow them to approach the market, to help design, implement and monitor a series of initiatives. Simply put, finding those budgets will help them to keep their talent.





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Nick Burns joined Gallagher in 2019 as CEO of Gallagher’s Employee Benefits Consulting Division, UK. Nick is responsible for leading the UK business teams to create innovative employee experience and wellbeing solutions for small-to-medium enterprise (SME) clients to multinational organisations.

Nick has spent more than 30 years leading award-winning employee benefits organisations from niche boutiques to FTSE100 consultancies. Having stepped away from the larger corporate environment in 2015, Nick spent four years in portfolio advisory roles with start-ups and SMEs in the creative technology, collaboration software, financial wellbeing, behavioural change, legal services, video communications, and AI consulting sectors.