David Walker: Why employee wellbeing gives competitive advantage

Employee wellbeing is a secret weapon for companies looking to gain a competitive advantage says Personal Group chief commercial officer David Walker

How important is the wellbeing of employees to a business? I am sure most organisations know that, intrinsically, being fair to staff makes sense. But how much additional productivity is being lost due to this not being a key focus for most businesses?

In 2015/16, stress accounted for 37 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost for health reasons. This is a frightening statistic for business owners and leaders, and doesn’t even allow for those who do come into work when they’re feeling unwell: presenteeism -associated mental ill health costs the UK economy £15.1bn a year[1], and has been proven to cause a reduction in productivity of as much as 12 per cent, according to Investors in People. Combined, this demonstrates that wellness is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but a business-critical issue which should be treated as such.

The very nature of who is responsible or accountable for the wellbeing of employees is in itself an area that causes much debate. This is an inexorable swing from this being “taken care of” by Government – quite deliberately over the past 30 years – through to the responsibility being that of the employee. But in recent years, the concept of the employer taking a much more proactive position has become popular, and whilst a degree of altruism exists in many companies, progressive leaders are realising that employee wellness is actually a business opportunity.

Happy, healthy, engaged employees are good for business. Fact. Studies including the 2014 report from the University of Warwick and Alex Edman’s excellent research into the top performing companies in the USA proves it. Whether in the short, medium or long term, companies with a focus around employee happiness and wellness do better than those who don’t. So if employee wellness is not a topic that makes it to the top of the agenda in management meetings, then the opportunity to gain competitive advantage is being lost.

Wellness isn’t just physical. In fact, the term can be defined as “the quality or state of being in good health”. There are a number of different structures used to illustrate the various components that make up wellness, but perhaps the clearest structure to explain the concept is as a triangle, with physical, mental and financial wellness taking each of the three sides, on a base of communication.

If there is one area that is making more column inches that ever before it is financial wellness, a former taboo subject in the workplace. A significant portion of work days lost to emotional or mental stress issues have their cause in money problems. Figures released in September 2017 by the Money Advice Service show that there are 8.3 million people in the UK with problem debts, and debt charity StepChange has said the percentage of its clients falling behind on payments went over 40 per cent in the first half of 2017. The average debt of the people it helps has also risen, from £14,251 in 2016 to £14,367 in the first half of this year.

It is highly likely, if not certain, that some of your clients’ employees, are impacted. When Unison surveyed 21,000 NHS workers in 2016, they found that 49 per cent of them had resorted to asking friends and family for money in the previous 12 months.

So what is the solution? There is a journey an employee must travel through to get the positive impact of a wellness programme, starting with awareness, to understanding, then taking action and participating in a programme.

There are many services available to improve employee wellness, which can be brought together into a programme. But it can really be as simple as starting with one simple, low/no cost action in each area.

One of the most effective ways to improve the mental wellbeing of employees is to make sure their manager simply listens to them – the rejuvenating power of just being listened to can often have a huge positive impact, even without any subsequent action. If the budget can stretch to it, then a simple employee assistance programme can have a hugely powerful impact, particularly in making sure staff return to work from illness or sickness at the optimum time.

The role of communication is possibly the most important component of the triangle and the must-have foundation when creating a programme. A business could invest thousands to build the very best health and wellbeing proposition in the industry, but it becomes meaningless if employees don’t know about it or aren’t engaged with it.

Of course, when dealing with employees’ health and wellness, nothing beats the personal approach, so explaining the programme face to face and using the very best of technology to ensure it is communicated is key.

Focussing on employee wellness will have a positive impact on business. The very best companies around the world know this. It need not be expensive or resource-hungry, but with management’s focus and energy, it could be the best kept secret in gaining a competitive advantage.