Workplace wellbeing has never been higher up the corporate agenda, yet stories about employee burnout, rising long-term ill health issues and increased sickness absence rates regularly hit the headlines. The latest research from Mental Health UK, found that a fifth of workers needed to take time off due to stress in the past year and the Office of National Statistic reports record levels of long-term sickness absence. What is going on?

Research from Dr Williman J Flemming from University of Oxford may point to a potential answer. This found that individual-level mental health interventions have no discernible impact on workplace wellbeing. Taking part in activities like mindfulness classes or resilience training may have a short-term impact, but to really make a discernible difference a structural approach that involves an entire organisation is required, built on robust, comprehensive wellbeing strategy.

Why does workplace wellbeing matter?

Put simply, organisations that look after their employees outperform those that don’t. A study published by the Wellbeing Research Centre, Oxford[1] by leading academics from the UK and US found higher levels of wellbeing generally lead to a stronger return on assets and higher profits.

This is not the only study to prove the link between treating employees well and better performance. In last year’s CIPD Wellbeing at Work report, only 6% of respondents said their organisation’s health and wellbeing initiatives had not resulted in any positive benefits[2].

Employees too are looking for employers who value them as individuals and provide the support they need. A major study by Gallup in the US found that 61% are looking for better wellbeing in their next job[3].

Taking a more strategic approach to wellbeing

When you look at the CIPD’s annual health and wellbeing survey, it is perhaps not surprising that the approach taken by many organisations to workplace wellbeing is not working. This found that only half of UK employers have a wellbeing strategy[4]. No project is very likely to go well if proper goals and a budget are not set. Unfortunately, too many organisations don’t do this when it comes to wellbeing.

A positive, nurturing workplace cannot be created overnight. It relies on creating solid foundation. At Health Shield we’ve created a model to define what a strategic approach to wellbeing should look like. It based on the key pillars that involves the whole organisation:

  • Support, Awareness and Opportunities provide the foundations for employee engagement in wellbeing and draw on behaviour change theory to encourage health and happiness.
  • Integration, Managers and Ownership are required for a healthy workplace culture, exploring ways of working and how embedded wellbeing is, to help your people have a great day at work.
  • Policies, Data and Values focus on leadership and the fundamental systems and structures which support wellbeing in the workplace and create high performance.

Employers need to stop thinking about wellbeing as an add on or something that’s nice to have. It needs to be at the heart of the organisation, influencing every policy and procedure, incorporated into the very fibre of the business. All these areas act in synergy. Addressing them together forms a workplace wellbeing strategy and means the pitfalls referred to earlier can be avoided. Wellbeing initiatives become strategic, proactive and needs-led so they are more appropriate and effective

Employee engagement in their own wellbeing

Having happy and healthy employees relies on creating the right environment for them to thrive in. This means making sure they have access to support when they need it. As well as signposting available services, it also relates to receiving recognition when due and the right working arrangements. It is also about knowing when and where they can use these services and how to access them. Opportunities also need to be created for employees to get involved with activities that are good for them, so they are empowered to help themselves.

Every employee is different, with their own set of needs and circumstances. This means it’s vital to offer a range of services which cover a wide variety of issues that employees can access when the need arises.

It is the employer’s duty to provide the routes to support better wellbeing. This doesn’t need to cost money, it can just involve signposting to relevant, external resources. It is not their role to make employees better and to solve their issues for them. An individual must have the motivation and desire to help themselves, they can’t be made to do this. Too many employers fall into the trap of taking on this burden, rather than concentrating on creating the conditions where employees feel comfortable to ask for support when they need it.

Communicating what that support is and how to access it is key. If employees don’t know what is available, they won’t see the value or use it when needed, vastly diminishing its worth. However, too often this communication is inadequate. Less than half of employees think their employer is effective in communicating their employee benefits.

Creating a positive workplace culture

Good workplace wellbeing relies on employees having the opportunity to access resources to take control of their own wellbeing. Senior leaders need to be onboard with this approach and voice this support.

Line managers need to have access to employee development processes, know where to turn to for support and receive training on being a people manager with written guidance on wellbeing for a confident and consistent approach.

This means a wellbeing strategy should be integrated with ways of working. For example, there is no point introducing mindfulness training to help alleviate stress if employees are required to work to impossible deadlines or handle unreasonable workloads. Employers need to consider the whole picture and understand how supporting good wellbeing relies on getting the structure of an organisation right.

The approach to wellbeing needs to be explained to employees from the very moment they join the organisation, forming an integral part of any induction. This is supported by clear policies and procedures the embed wellbeing in how the organisation operates.

The culture of an organisation is set by the behaviour of senior leaders. If they endorse a healthy work/life balance and support employees to seek help if they are struggling it sets the tone right across the organisation. If they are seen to take time off if they are sick, are open about their own problems and encourage others to do the same, people feel far more comfortable to look after their own wellbeing and reach out for help.

Leadership and fundamental systems

Wellbeing works when everyone in the workplace is involved and invested. While senior leadership buy-in is crucial, it’s just as important that HR, line managers and employees believe in its value too. This means creating a framework that underpins the written wellbeing strategy such as having the right policies and procedures in place, such as setting out a family friendly approach, absence management and health and safety. Other initiatives might include encouraging one-to-one discussions between line managers and employees focused on wellbeing or supporting volunteering activities.

Data also plays a key role. It should be captured and recorded, then used to design appropriate strategies for the areas discussed earlier in this article. Gathering information on absence, turnover and engagement as well as looking at what support employees are accessing and how effective that support is provides employers with a much clearer understanding of how well their strategy is working. It also shows what areas need improvement and if any gaps need to be filled.

Using this data effectively also means organisations can devise much more targeted communication strategies, ensuring those who are most likely to need a service know how to access it and are aware of how it has helped others in the business.

To underline the importance and commitment to wellbeing it needs to be part of the vision and values of a business. Employees should be seen as the organisation’s most important asset. The values need to be front and centre, with managers and employees required to and rewarded for behaving in a way that supports it. Employees should have a voice and be listened to, creating an open and non-judgemental culture.

Strategic wellbeing works

Getting wellbeing right requires careful planning and commitment and should be regarded and managed in the same way that other major projects are approached. Time needs to be taken to assess what the problems are, what solutions are required and how these should be rolled out and monitored. It should not be seen as the preserve of HR, but something that the whole business needs to understand and embrace.

It is not about following the latest fad or ticking a box. It must be linked to what support employees need to be able to bring their best selves to work for as much time as possible. If the dial is truly to be shifted on workplace wellbeing it needs to be made a long-term business objective that everyone in the organisation works towards.


[1] download_file (

[2] CIPD Wellbeing at Work 2023 Report Summary | Altruist Enterprises (

[3] The Top 6 Things Employees Want in Their Next Job (

[4] Health and wellbeing at work (

Matt Liggins
Matt Liggins
Head of Wellbeing at Health Shield | + posts

Matt Liggins is Head of Wellbeing at Health Shield. He has more than 20 years’ experience in wellbeing across private, public and third sectors including the NHS, charities and corporate wellbeing. Matt has supported individuals, groups, workplaces, communities and national programmes. He has held client/patient-facing roles, working his way up to director level, managing wellbeing provider organisations.  In the corporate space, he specialises in wellbeing strategy design to create healthy workplace cultures, working on site with hundreds of organisations to bring these strategies to life.