Employee wellbeing has never been more important than it is now. The Covid-19 pandemic, which brought numerous health and wellbeing challenges to a suddenly remote-working workforce, pushed wellbeing right to the top of the corporate agenda. It had to. Mental health was on employers’ radars long before the pandemic, but emotional and psychological wellbeing due to stresses and anxieties over the pandemic took on a new meaning.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was a 25 per cent global increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Mental health charity Mind found that a third of adults said existing mental health issues worsened.

It wasn’t just mental health which suffered. The Samaritans say many people had spoken to them of ‘deteriorating’ physical health during 2020. Not surprising, considering that thousands of non-urgent hospital appointments and therapies were cancelled during the pandemic.

Then there was the impact on peoples’ financial wellbeing: three in eight adults (38 per cent) saw their financial situation deteriorate as a result of Covid-19, according to the FCA’s October 2020 Covid-19 panel survey of 22,000 participants.

It’s fair to say then, that wellbeing was massively affected. Since then, employers and businesses have really stepped up. If they recognised the importance of employee wellbeing before 2020, they are crystal clear now.

Most know, for instance, as highlighted by CIPD, that there’s a clear link between good workplace wellbeing and improved productivity and performance and increased resilience.

Aon’s 2022-2023 Global Wellbeing Survey also found there is a clear relationship between wellbeing and a sustainable working life, and that relationship can affect company performance.

There appears to be a clear trend in employers placing more emphasis on wellbeing. Indeed, 63 per cent of businesses globally say wellbeing is more important to their company since 2020 according to the Aon global wellbeing survey.

Employers are also starting to put their people first before profit. The survey found that employers’ top three priorities were attracting or retaining talent, employee wellbeing and profits and financial margins, in comparison to 2020 priorities which were: meeting financial targets, evolving market and meeting changing needs and meeting customer’s needs.

Questioned further, survey respondents said the top five employee wellbeing issues were:

  • Mental and emotional health
  • Burnout and languishing
  • Working environment and culture
  • Virtual and hybrid work support
  • Financial risk and stress.

In what has been a financially tense few years for businesses, the shift in focus from profit to people is highly significant. It shows they know the power of employee wellbeing.

Why is employee wellbeing so powerful?

Wellbeing consists of five core elements: physical, emotional, financial, social and career. Every element is equally important, not least because they all interlink. If you are struggling with debt (financial), this may negatively affect your mental health (emotional). Poor mental health may cause you to isolate, impacting your social wellbeing, and can also cause a variety of physical symptoms too, all of which could negatively impact your work.

Conversely, when people feel well, they perform well. Organisations are starting to realise that wellbeing is an enabler of organisational performance and the way in which wellbeing has the power to affect the functioning of the wider organisation. Healthy people equal healthy profits.

By treating wellbeing as a priority, improvements in this area will, in theory, naturally lead to improvements in attraction and retention of talent as well as financial targets.

Thinking of wellbeing in this context elevates wellbeing from where it was years ago as a ‘nice to have’ to a business imperative which has wide-ranging impacts on an organisation. When it’s woven into the DNA of an organisation, that’s when the power of wellbeing is fully realised.

So how do employers get to this place?

Data first

Start with data to set the direction of your wellbeing strategy. What are the wellbeing issues affecting your organisation specifically? What data do you have and what can you get hold of? The power of wellbeing is realised when you look at your unique organisation and its specific needs to identify gaps in provision. If there is a large percentage of women between 45 and 55 years, they may need menopause support. Equally, if there is a proportion of employees in low-paid roles, financial wellbeing provision may be needed.

Understand psychosocial risk

It is important to have processes in place to identify and reduce psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Psychosocial hazards relate to how work is organised, social factors at work and aspects of the work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks. They are increasingly recognised as major challenges to health, safety and wellbeing at work and organisations have a legal duty to identify and manage them.  You can throw money at building up the resilience of the worker, but if you don’t create a healthy working environment for them to exist within, their wellbeing will be challenged, and your investment will not be maximised. A sustainable approach to wellbeing needs to be a two-pronged approach looking at the individual and the system within which it operates.

Lead by example

Lead by example – and lead from the top. Do you tell your people you care about wellbeing but overload them with demands? Do you tell your people you care about wellbeing, but keep them in the dark about change? Do you tell people to do things to look after their wellbeing then don’t do so yourself?  Is the manager working weekends, while advocating to teams that rest and recovery is important? What messages are you actually sending out? Don’t be that organisation guilty of ‘wellbeing washing’ by advocating for employee wellbeing and then not backing it up with actions.

Support your managers

Managers often face pressure on both sides: to support their teams and meet internal targets and goals. When team wellbeing is compromised, this makes achieving targets more challenging. Since Covid, managers’ roles have changed exponentially – managing remote teams requires different skills and managers are now expected to be alert to when worker wellbeing is compromised – something that can be more difficult to detect remotely. Think about what training is available for leaders and managers to help them create psychological safety within teams and how to identify when someone may be struggling and confidently have an open conversation about it. And remember, if managers are to be the compassionate, supportive individuals that companies need, they absolutely need support too.

Listen to your workforce

It’s important to take into account the diversity of needs and experiences among your workforce. A blanket approach to wellbeing will never work. Investing in a mindfulness app may be beneficial to some employees but won’t work for others. Find out what’s needed – listen to your workforce and their preferences.

Recognise the power of employee wellbeing

There’s no doubt that when implemented right, a workplace wellbeing strategy can be very powerful indeed. It can improve employee engagement and retention rates. It can reduce sickness absence. It can boost productivity and performance. In fact, the higher an organisation’s ratings in overall employee wellbeing (including culture, wellbeing climate, outcomes and investment), the better the scores when it comes to sustainable working life, resilience, agility and belonging. Improving these factors can enhance company performance by at least 11 per cent up to 55 per cent.

Even from an ROI perspective, wellbeing has come into its own.

Letitia Rowlin
Principal Wellbeing Consultant at Aon | + posts

Letitia Rowlin helps organisations approach wellbeing strategically to create healthy sustainable workplaces. A Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Executive Coach and former practising solicitor, she has a specific interest in occupational and organisational stress management and mental health.