For many years, the concept of employee wellbeing has been regarded by many employers as a woolly concept which was likely to cost a great deal of money but does not produce verifiable outcomes. Something has changed.
The soft HR concepts of yesteryear are being given a great deal more weight as a result of monitoring and evidence-based research. These show that over time Companies which are serious about employee wellbeing have boasted about a noticeable benefit to the bottom line. The CIPD report on Health and Wellbeing at Work 2022 is one such example of research on good practice. In addition, Acas, the Government and a great many public and private bodies have directed employers to consider wellbeing in terms of its HR practices and policies.
There is no legal obligation to promote healthy living, to have a caring and sympathetic environment or to put employees’ conditions ahead of delivering on objectives or making profits. Enabling employees to achieve their potential whether physical, mental, social, intellectual or spiritual can feature way down the list of desirable outcomes when they come up against the competing immediate priorities of increasing productivity, sales and profit margins. The lack of a universally accepted definition of wellbeing does not assist in promoting it.
However with increasing recognition through initiatives such as B Corp certification, where companies commit to balancing people, planet and profit, there is increased understanding that how businesses look after its people has a direct link to the success and often then its profit.
In direct terms, the issues around absence rates, sickness and stress, performance and productivity and retention and recruitment all impact on the bottom line. It is well known that where employees do not feel engaged in the work place and therefore do not share the goals of the business then all their efforts will not be directed to furthering the aims of the business. The process of engaging the employees to share the same goals as the owners and managers of the business is also not a quick fix. Attempts to treat it as such will lose the trust of employees and lack creditability, having the opposite effect from that desired.
HR Teams and business owners usually look to employment lawyers for guidance on how to avoid allegations of bullying, discrimination and claims for constructive unfair dismissal. The changed mind set requires that Employees of all levels need to be seen (and most importantly, treated) as business partners. This is especially so where people are a businesses biggest asset – like in the professional service industry. Employees (like business partners) actually want to know about staff turnover, profitability, the comings and goings of colleagues, big wins with contracts and significant negative events. By not sharing such information, some business may be perceived as not regarding their employees as being worthy of such knowledge. This is a mistake. With larger businesses, not informing and consulting employees about matters that impact on them can also be a breach of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004. Communication by way of intranet, newsletters but also formal meetings and fun days out can assist in breaking down the barriers and increasing the flow of information. The leaders who help their employees to understand where they fit in to the bigger organisational picture and their sense of “ownership” of the organisation are going beyond the duty to inform and consult. This is smart business. It is about feeling like you have a stake, that productivity matters and how it benefits you and it is meaningful engagement. We have seen this particularly in the rise of employee owned businesses – but it’s a principal that applies to all businesses whether big or small, Employee owned or founder led.
The risk can be that even if you are working hard on communications and culture, that the relationships between employees and managers can often be very operational and functional. Trust is only present superficially. Managers may be seen by subordinate workers as representatives of the company, whose sole aim is to squeeze more effort out of them. A Company which is performing adequately has no pressing need to pro-actively address relationships, and they are seen as a distress issue to be addressed when there is a problem rather than an organic thing that needs constant care and attention. Managers need to make the transition so that employees turn to them as leaders, sources of information and for motivation and direction, seeking to listen to and value the input of their team.
Recently, statistics from the Office of National Statistics, disclosed that UK workers are around one sixth less productive than the workers in the US, France and Germany. This gap has grown over time following a decade of low productivity growth in the UK. If there is an imperative, this must be it! The reasons for this lower rate of productivity are many and varied but what is clear is that studies have concluded that the long hours culture is still prevalent rather than a productive culture. There is a good deal of “presenteeism”. Quantity and quality can be natural opposites. Too many organisations are focussing on the quantity. Hybrid working has added some challenges around what and how to measure when looking at your team’s productivity.
Long hours and pressure can also be linked with stress and ill health. This is of course a health and safety issue – albeit not in the sense that engineering and construction companies usually consider it. We all understand traditional health issues such as noise, dust and chemical hazards very well. Those health and safety issues are well regulated and because they have legal obligations they get done and they get measured.
The factors causing stress especially in office and professional services environments are more difficult to tackle. Any employees who have a pre-disposition to stress are likely to fall victim at some stage. They may then be marked out in some organisations as a liability. They may be targeted for redundancy or dismissal through performance management. This sort of culture which does not demonstrate care for its weakest members can lead to an “us and them” attitude within the workforce. The reasons for the vulnerability to stress are rarely examined by companies, instead concentrating on “plugging the gap” and addressing the symptoms not the causes. Organisations risk losing valuable key workers because they have failed to look at the job design or consulted with the employee in question in relation to the role and responsibilities, efficiency and effectiveness, whether the most appropriate equipment has been provided and so on. The loss of key workers through absence or resignations affect businesses adversely. Preventative measures which cost little may have resulted in the same employee doing a much more effective job with little absence. Instead, there is a loss of productivity when the employee is absent, there is an impact on morale and there may be recruitment costs. Early discussions when managers realise things are going amiss can really help.
Where an organisation is focused on its immediate financial and KPI outcomes and gives little time and attention to wellbeing, we often see these common hallmarks: minimal communication, lack of transparency, a perceived bullying culture and an imbalance in power. There are likely to be high levels of conflict between workers and also between management and workers as well as high level of absence.
People are however inventive and where they cannot access power legitimately, they sometimes wage a guerrilla war. Alienated employees can provide poor customer service and low productivity especially where their work is provided anonymously or where the end user does not have face to face contact with the employee. Where the work is demanding and often unreasonably so, employees can sabotage the work place by picking their time to move to competitors, using sickness absence at times of high demand, exploit shortages and working to rule. There are even examples of employees encouraging end users to complain about customer service. Employees can do a disproportionate amount of damage to reputation via customer satisfaction and consumer survey companies such as Trip Advisor. An estimated 24% of managers’ time is spent dealing with conflict and dissatisfaction in the workplace. The cumulative percentage of their salaries needs to be taken into account when making decisions about wellbeing.
The process of moving the relationships between staff and management to one based on trust and shared values and goals is a slow process and requires effective line managers who respect, and want to develop and reward their staff because they want them to be efficient, effective and loyal. Where consultation values the voices of employees and uses their views and concerns to the organisation’s benefit, it has the best prospects of changing the culture. Where there is one sided conflict resolution, and where employees do not feel they have a voice, there is often a determination to defeat the system and employees will channel their energies elsewhere and will find ways of working to a lower standard or rate.
When a company has a vision, it will have policies to achieve that vision. It will be aware of its vicarious liability and seek to get the best out of its staff. Health and safety will be a priority but will look at the less obvious side of motivation, enthusiasm for work and healthy workplace relationships. Health and safety will include wellbeing. Employees will be more productive by enjoying their work and sharing the values of the organisation. If employees are partners in the business, they will wish the company to do well and share in its glory and conversely will despair at its failures. Targets and performance indicators must be reasonable and not oppressive. Remembering that people are not hamsters on a wheel, appreciating that they all have different needs of which work is only one, albeit an important one, will assist an employer in providing rewards that will motivate. Rewarding employees with consistency of treatment, making them feel listened to and valued, praising exceptional service takes resources, time and commitment. Reward is not just monetary but a range of small things; transparent and desired. Employers can find out what works by asking the employees. The process is about changing behaviour and rewarding good behaviour. To that extent goals of reducing waste and increasing productivity require buy-in from staff and should lead to increased productivity. KPIs for the individuals and the business should align for that reason and consistency of treatment should permeate the entire organisation.
When considering wellbeing, remember also that people need different things to realise good health and that a one size fits all approach is not enough. Importantly any efforts businesses take to support employees should ideally be developed in partnership with the workers themselves.
An organisation which pursues this cultural change is likely to be a valued partner for its customers, with organisations being proud to be associated with them. Quality employees are attracted to such employers and friendships formed within such organisations cement retention for the long term. Who said this was a soft option?
If you would like to know more about how to implement policies and practices to ensure the wellbeing of your workers or to discuss how as a B Corp we address wellbeing for our teams, please contact us.