Why bother with a corporate wellness programme?

Wellness is suddenly everywhere in the business world. Health professionals warn about it, employers talk about it and workers worry about it.

The subject’s sudden topicality is not without good cause. The costs to business of ill-health and stress, especially in terms of absenteeism and low productivity, are huge. Recent research in the international retail sector, for example, calculates that one in every ten hours of working time are lost to unplanned time off.

Management have a responsibility to ensure that both employee and employer benefit

“For employers, it is important to raise the priority given to mental health and wellbeing to move towards a culture which proactively manages mental wellbeing,” according to the professional services firm Deloitte, in a major report on the subject.

Jump forward a decade, and cultural, demographic and technological changes are set to make wellbeing at work even more important. So what is in store for employers?

New technology can help inform corporate wellness programmes

Richard Hardyment, author of The Wellbeing Purpose: How Companies Can Make Life Better, says the near future holds both opportunities and challenges.

He points to “incredibly exciting” prospects held out by emerging technologies. The days are fast arriving, for example, when artificial intelligence will identify workers at risk of going off sick due to stress or flu. Smarter psychological profiling also promises the possibility of matching new recruits to jobs that fit their wellness needs.

But too much knowledge of employee wellness could be a bad thing, Mr Hardyment warns. “A dystopian future is one of interfering bosses who use wellness data to disadvantage or discriminate,” he says. “Management have a responsibility to ensure that both employee and employer benefit.”

Changes are afoot around how we define the parameters of wellness. At present, the subject sits firmly with human resources. The logic is sound: our working environments affect our physical and mental wellbeing; HR is responsible for framing those environments, therefore it is HR’s responsibility to look after our wellness.

But what if employee wellness derives not just from what tasks we do and how we do them, but who we are and what drives us at work? With younger generations increasingly preoccupied with their individual identities and purpose, companies need to accommodate this shift, says Mr Hardyment.

“Today, everyone asks staff about job satisfaction. In the future, we could see organisations measuring life satisfaction. Making staff feel genuinely better about life requires creating jobs with meaning, flexibility and autonomy,” he says.

Flexible working and holistic healthcare are easy first steps

The future won’t all be about dramatic change, however. For many issues on the corporate wellness agenda, change will occur at a more incremental pace.

Take physical health. Companies are not about to ditch their fitness programmes or healthy lifestyle initiatives. But as public health specialists advocate more joined-up, holistic care and prevention-led healthcare, then the private sector is likely to follow suit.

“We know that over 70 per cent of diseases are preventable. Today’s forward-thinking companies are offering allied health solutions at onsite clinics for all types of problems, including prevention,” says Anne Marie Kirby, chief executive of Canada-based CoreHealth Technologies, a corporate wellness technology provider.

The same is true for flexible working. Seven in ten professionals now work outside the office at least one day a week, according to recent research by IWG, parent group of leading workspace companies including Regus and Spaces. In our increasingly digital age, fewer and fewer of us will have to trek into work each day.

With a rise in flexible working also comes a probable rise in flexible contracts. According to Ankur Shah, chief executive of Mahabis, an ecommerce footwear company, this could spell danger of burn-out culture spreading to the startup and freelance economy.

“Employers shouldn’t use freelancers as an excuse to incorporate bad working practices. In fact, going forward, it’s going to be as important for them to look out for the flexible working needs of their independent contractors as those of their own employees,” says Mr Shah, whose firm operates a four-day working week.

In the future, corporate wellness will be an expectation, not a perk

Another wellbeing issue that is set to spike in the future is the number of employees with caring responsibilities outside work. Currently, around one in seven UK citizens are juggling work with caring for a family member or friend. As the population ages, so will this phenomenon of employee-carers.

“There is simply no denying that the issue of care is going to have major implications for businesses of all sizes,” says Simi Dubb, director of diversity and inclusion at energy company Centrica.

In Centrica’s case, Ms Dubb anticipates as many as 60 per cent of the company’s 30,000 staff becoming carers at some point in their working lives. Among the options the company currently offers its employee-carers is a chance to go part time, take a career break or work variable hours.

According to Ms Dubb, not nearly enough companies are thinking ahead. Even at today’s levels of care responsibilities, UK businesses could save £4.8 billion every year by better supporting staff carers and thereby avoiding unplanned absences, she argues.

“Only a third of companies currently have these sorts of policies for carers in place, despite the fact it is actually something that benefits our business enormously,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest change over the next decade or so is the expectation of employees. The workers of tomorrow will increasingly look to their employers for personalised solutions to meet their physical or mental health needs, whether that means access to a life coach, a customised dietary programme or an on-site meditation centre.

Kelly Panagiotidou, Partner, People Operations at Reborrn, a new London-based digital consultancy, says corporate wellness programmes will no longer be seen as a benefit. She predicts: “In the future, such programmes will be viewed as an integral part of the value proposition offer to employees.”