Workplace wellbeing – a slow burner or a flash in the pan?

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This is the first in a series of three pieces in which Paul Barrett from the Bank Workers Charity reviews the state of workplace wellbeing. Here he considers the wider social and political evolution of wellbeing as a concept and then narrows the focus to investigate its growing impact and influence in the workplace. Subsequent articles will explore the factors that determine whether a wellbeing strategy succeeds and he will consider some of the exciting developments that are happening at the frontiers of wellbeing.

In innumerable conversations I’ve had with people interested in employee wellbeing, there’s one question that comes up time and again...

Why hasn’t wellbeing captured the boardroom?

Why, they ask, hasn’t it made the breakthrough as effectively as employee engagement? Instead it appears to be stuck in HR, something soft and cuddly, nice to have - but not taken very seriously by more hardnosed parts of the business.

The argument really ought to be over, they say; after all, the data is there - the positive impact on engagement, the links to performance and productivity, ROI  – so why aren’t business leaders listening?

I’m convinced that not only are we headed in the right direction but that there are a great many signs of progress out there.

Frustrated, they conclude that we’ve probably taken wellbeing as far as we can and that we’ll one day look back on it as the latest in a long line of organisational fads that disappear over the horizon once businesses become bored of the conversation.

I understand the pessimism but I think the reality is rather different.

Yes, at times the pace of progress can seem glacially slow. I’ve been working in the wellbeing field for over 20 years; I’ve watched its developments and convolutions and as I look at today’s landscape I see plenty of reasons for optimism.

I’m convinced that not only are we headed in the right direction but that there are a great many signs of progress out there.

So what are these developments and where do we look for them?

The global picture

I think a good starting point is in the world at large. The term wellbeing has gained currency in so many fields of endeavour and it has penetrated the language in a way that was unthinkable ten years ago.

At a global level there are international bodies like the World Health Organisation and World Economic Forum leading the wellbeing debate. Meanwhile the OECD and Gallup conduct comparisons of wellbeing across nations.

Within the business community, in 2014, health and wellbeing featured prominently on the Davos agenda for the first time and has continued to do so since.

There is an ongoing debate about whether GDP is a meaningful measure of national success.

Wellbeing as a concept has also penetrated the economic sphere, where there is an ongoing debate about whether GDP is a meaningful measure of national success.

Its limitations were clear even to its creator Simon Kuznets, who said in 1962, that ‘growth’ doesn’t make sense as a goal unless we answer the question “more growth, of what and for what?"

This has led economists of world stature like Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to call for something more meaningful and wellbeing is the concept cited most frequently as a richer and more inclusive alternative.

From wellbeing in the home...

Closer to home, the UK has taken the initiative in measuring wellbeing at national level with David Cameron famously championing the wellbeing agenda in Parliament.

Though his enthusiasm appears to have waned, he did commission the Office for National Statistics to conduct an ongoing survey, a kind of ‘state of the nation’ in wellbeing terms, which continues today.

This has effectively familiarised the wider population with the wellbeing debate, taking it out of the realm of academics and into the pages of the national press.

Each new tranche of data throws up interesting stories, which are seized on and disseminated  by the national media.

As the language of wellbeing appears with increasing frequency in the national media, so it has become part of everyday discourse.

Only a few weeks ago, the release of the latest data set resulted in a flurry of stories about the different ages of man in wellbeing terms, identifying those in middle age as having the lowest levels of wellbeing, presumably because of the myriad of pressures they are subject to at this life stage.

Also active in the political arena is the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, who advise on how our growing understanding of national wellbeing can help to shape government policy. Included in their last report was a recommendation that doctors and teachers be offered training in mindfulness.

With these discussions taking place in the public sphere, it’s inevitable that people absorb and are influenced by what they hear. And as the language of wellbeing appears with increasing frequency in the national media, so it has become part of everyday discourse.

This in turn has carried over into the workplace, creating a new frame of reference for thinking about the links between people and business performance.

...to wellbeing in the workplace

You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that wellbeing as a concept is making headway.

Independent campaigning organisations such as CIPD and The Work Foundation are highly focused on employee wellbeing and both have a major influence on the HR agenda for UK businesses.

Indeed CIPD’s recent appointment of Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a pioneer in workplace wellbeing, to the role of president, surely signals an increased commitment in this direction.

You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that wellbeing as a concept is making headway.

The Work Foundation has also been proactive, setting up the Health at Work Policy Unit. Created in 2015, this body has filled the vacuum left by the demise of DWP’s Health, Work and Wellbeing Team. It has already released a number of policy papers targeting different aspects of employee health and wellbeing, pulling together some of the most influential figures from industry and research.

Finally we have the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, chaired by Sir Gus O’Donnell, researching the most effective wellbeing interventions, making it easier for those implementing wellbeing strategies within and outside the workplace to make informed choices.

We also have other independent organisations working hand-in-hand with major corporations to promote workplace wellbeing. Business in the Community (BITC) collaborates with UK companies already committed to the wellbeing agenda like National Grid, Royal Mail and Anglia Water.

Meanwhile Business Healthy and City Mental Health Alliance promote employee wellbeing in the Square Mile.

The fact that so many major UK corporations are working with these bodies is, to me, a clear sign that the argument is being won.

A fivefold increase in wellbeing reports

Since 2013 I have been using Google Alerts to identify new developments in the wellbeing field. Within this relatively short timeframe I have seen a fivefold increase in the number of media articles, research papers and reports focusing on different aspects of wellbeing.

Virtually every bank now has someone in a senior role taking responsibility for the wellbeing agenda.

Mirroring this, there has been an exponential growth in the number of posts advertised that include wellbeing in the job title. In the banking sector, which has shown a strong commitment to employee wellbeing, there has been a proliferation of such jobs.

Indeed, virtually every bank now has someone in a senior role taking responsibility for the wellbeing agenda. This would simply not have been the case five years ago.

That is equally true of employee wellbeing conferences, which have now become more frequent every year. Nothing reflects the trend more than the success of the annual Health and Wellbeing at Work Conference.

Held at the NEC Birmingham, this has been running for 10 years, with each year seeing an increase in attendance of around 10-12%. Lauren Sterling, organiser of the event, believes that this reflects the extent to which wellbeing has moved up the organisational agenda.

The number and range of issues included in the conference has mushroomed; a measure of our improved understanding of wellbeing and its relevance to business. Lauren says that “themes around the influence of wellbeing on key business priorities like performance and productivity have become an increasingly prominent feature of our conference agenda."

 This year saw over 3,500 attendees from organisations as diverse as BP, Balfour Beatty, Tesco and National Assembly of Wales.

...and, finally, wellbeing as a business priority

So what other evidence is there of greater organisational attention and resource being directed towards wellbeing?

Annually BITC have measured how FTSE 100 companies have publically reported on employee wellbeing and engagement.

In 2015 they found 69% of businesses reported on all five BITC categories, representing a gradual but continued increase in reporting since they began monitoring.

A recent Virgin Pulse study found that overall, businesses are either increasing or stabilising their wellbeing spend and are taking a more holistic view that embraces employee mental health and financial wellbeing, alongside physical health.

Perhaps more importantly, the study reported that companies are viewing the value of their programmes in terms that look beyond cost-reduction, appreciating the contribution they make to employee performance, staff loyalty and organisational culture.

It may be happening gradually but businesses are developing a more nuanced understanding of the range of ways employee wellbeing programmes benefit the organisation.

Only 8% of businesses [in a recent CIPD survey] had a company-wide wellbeing strategy in place, so there is clearly some way to go.

Whilst such programmes are now commonplace,  a recent CIPD survey found that only 8% of businesses had a company-wide wellbeing strategy in place, so there is clearly some way to go before wellbeing becomes embedded in UK business culture.

But we need to remember wellbeing is still a relatively young and complex field. To my sceptical colleagues I’d suggest that we’re not about to experience a eureka moment where we see wellbeing universally established as a business imperative.

Rather it will continue to be a story of incremental progress on many fronts.

But I remain confident that the heightened focus on wellbeing and its benefits that we’re seeing in the workplace and in so many other ways in society at large, will result in ever more organisations embracing it as a key strategic priority.

About Paul Barrett

Paul Barrett, Bank Worker's Charity

Paul Barrett is the Head of Wellbeing for the Bank Workers Charity. An occupational psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in employee mental and physical health, he is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace, writing for the Work Foundation, CIPD, Good Day at Work, Fit For Work, Business Healthy and Wellbeing Pulse. Paul can be found on Twitter at @lcoridon.

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By dvla
01st Sep 2016 12:23

I see so many people overlook the importance of wellbeing

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07th Sep 2016 09:50

Great article. As a wellbeing convert and proponent, I encounter both the barriers and glacial movement, as well as the amazing benefits that inspired wellbeing strategies can have. How do we encourage the strategic embrace?

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