We need to rethink the role of wellbeing in the workplace

'Employees receiving regular quality retraining and development will be equipped to cope with increasingly dynamic and fluid jobs'


Debi O'Donovan

The coronavirus crisis has concertinaed a decade’s worth of ongoing workplace trends into just a few weeks. Those in human resources who run employee wellbeing strategies have found their programmes front and centre as they try to help workers to cope, month after month, during the most extreme collective change since the two world wars.

Even before the crisis, employers were concerned at how hard organisational change was hitting employees’ wellbeing. The Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA)/AXA PPP Employee Wellbeing Research 2020, to be published this month, found that the share of employers citing organisational change as a risk to wellbeing increased 235 per cent between 2019 and 2020, with more than half of employers (57 per cent) identifying it as an issue.

Designing wellbeing into work

To move away from a state where work damages physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing, we need to radically rethink the role of wellbeing in the workplace. Unless we design wellbeing into work, as opposed to only offering wellbeing benefits and programmes to support wellbeing, feelings of pressure, being overwhelmed and financial stress, as well as musculoskeletal and obesity problems brought on by ways of working, will continue to worsen.

Designing wellbeing into work should include reviewing where, when and how people work, as well as reskilling employees to manage ongoing changes. Employees receiving regular quality retraining and development will be equipped to cope with increasingly dynamic and fluid jobs. They will have better resilience due to being more secure in their abilities and their future employability.

To cope with evolving work environments, employers need employees who are empowered and have a sense of advocacy. By engendering belonging and purpose, as well as allowing people to be their authentic selves at work, we will move from top-down command and control to greater creativity and responsibility among our workforces. We are all individual human beings, not machines.

Humanising the workplace

To move to humanise the workplace is also to acknowledge differences between people and be inclusive and fair to all. The COVID-19 crisis has already been shown to have unpicked some of the improvements in equality in the workplace that have been hard won: women, minority ethic groups, the disabled and older workers are most impacted by job losses, the virus and the need to stay home for care or shielding reasons. Wellbeing strategies, such as support for carers, women’s health initiatives and good financial wellbeing for all, have a crucial role to play to mitigate growing unfairness.

Given the vital role wellbeing should play in reshaping work and jobs, it is not surprising that measuring effectiveness is receiving greater focus. This year as many as 93 per cent of respondents to the REBA research said they use some form of management information to gauge the success of their wellbeing practices. However, most measures are proxy figures, such as employee engagement, absence rates and participation levels, rather than an attempt to see shifts at a strategic business level.

In time we may see more measurement focus on how secure employees feel in their jobs, whether they feel a sense of purpose in their work, are able to connect with others and feel their employer is a good citizen who exercises fairness and kindness. Measures such as customer satisfaction and good outcomes are starting to show themselves among some forward-thinking employers. Risks also need to be measured and assessed more often, such as damage to employer brand if employers are shown to have a lack of compassion towards the wellbeing of its employees.

To be sustainable, an organisation needs to be innovative and resilient, which will only happen with a good culture and employee experience. Wellbeing is absolutely at the core of achieving this.