Written by Kate Pritchard
Employee wellbeing has seen a welcome increase in attention through the pandemic and beyond. In many cases organisations have moved from focusing on concepts such as reducing workplace stress, ensuring health and safety, and improving work/life balance to look more holistically at wider mental and physical wellbeing. According to the CIPD 84% of businesses have increased their focus on looking after employees’ mental health over the last year.
However, while important, mental, and physical factors are just two of the four, interrelated dimensions that make up employee wellbeing. It is therefore vital that employee wellbeing strategies cover more than employee mental health. They must include the other two dimensions – emotional and financial wellbeing – as well. This is particularly true as the boundaries between work and home life continue to blur through remote/hybrid working.
To begin it is important to understand what each of the four dimensions of employee wellbeing covers as they all add up to impact overall health and happiness:
The World Health Organisation defines mental wellbeing as, “Mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” The key point is about staff being able to realise their potential, and organisations can support employees in multiple ways to achieve this, as we’ll explain below.
Normally the symptoms of poor physical wellbeing are easier to spot than those of mental wellbeing. They could be ill health, obesity or being in physical pain for example. However, some illnesses can remain hidden (even from the employee themself), meaning that HR teams and managers need to understand the wider picture to help employees achieve the right level of physical wellbeing. Additionally, working environments can contribute to poor physical wellbeing, such as through poor lighting or ergonomics.
How employees interact with others has an impact on emotional wellbeing. This also feeds into mental wellbeing as it leads to frustration, higher stress levels and even burnout. After 18 months of working from home for many, the move back to the office, even part-time, will increase the potential threats to emotional wellbeing. Many employees feel worried about having greater in-person contact with colleagues that they currently only interact with over Teams or Zoom. Humans are often upset by change, so organisations need to listen to employees on an individual level to help support them back to the office as required.
According to PwC research 63% of US workers said their financial stress had increased since the pandemic began. Employees continue to have multiple worries around their financial wellbeing. Inflation and supply chain issues are leading to price rises across many goods and services, such as gas, electricity, and petrol. These concerns add to fears around job security as the economic impacts of the pandemic hit home and furlough schemes end. Financial fears again impact mental wellbeing. Adding to this many people find it hard to discuss financial issues, making it more complex for managers to isolate the root causes of poor wellbeing.
Taking a proactive, holistic view of employee wellbeing is essential to successfully engaging staff, improving the employee experience, and getting the most out of your people. That means not ignoring the emotional and financial aspects of wellbeing, but instead providing tailored support for each and every employee’s health and wellbeing. Adopting these best practice ideas will help, particularly as we move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to new ways of working:
Ensure you are collecting feedback on a regular basis from all employees. In a fast-moving world, circumstances and concerns can change rapidly. That means relying on annual employee surveys will not deliver the up-to-date insight that you need. Ensure you incorporate action planning within your feedback processes, so that employees can see that you are acting on their concerns at both a company and individual level.
It is quite possible for employees to be highly engaged while their overall wellbeing is suffering. For example, they can be emotionally committed to the organisation to the extent of overworking, leading to potential wellbeing issues. This can be particularly difficult to spot with hybrid and remote working where employees are not in the office full-time and are therefore not as visible to managers and colleagues. Therefore, ensure your surveys cover wellbeing alongside engagement metrics. This doesn’t need to be overly-complex – a couple of simple questions asking employees how they feel can deliver invaluable insight.
Unfortunately, there are still many people who are concerned that highlighting wellbeing issues will be seen as a ‘weakness’ and will count against them. That makes it vital that senior managers take part in wellbeing activities and share their own stories and experiences where relevant. This removes concerns and engages the wider workforce, encouraging employees to participate.
Many organisations have increased the support they provide, particularly around mental wellbeing during the pandemic. However, according to the CIPD just 50% of organisations had a formal wellbeing strategy in place. It is important that this is addressed, and programmes are expanded to cover all four dimensions of wellbeing at work, such as through:
Yoga classes/lunchtime runs to ensure people leave their desks for physical wellbeing
Social events at a company/department/team level to help with emotional wellbeing
Sessions from financial advisers on areas such as pensions and budgeting, along with access to relevant resources to support financial wellbeing
Courses, apps, online resources, and helplines to support mental wellbeing.
Employee wellbeing programmes should also be delivered in a range of ways to meet the differing needs of particular employees, not all of whom will be in the office. For example, some may be happy to talk to a mental health champion in the office face-to-face, while others may prefer to access resources online or call an independent helpline.
You need to focus on employees and their particular concerns. Every employee will have different needs – there is no “one size fits all” approach to wellbeing. HR has a major role to play in creating the overall framework for employee wellbeing, but the line manager has the personal, daily relationship with their team members. That makes listening at an individual level crucial and requires line managers to be armed with the skills needed to spot the symptoms of wellbeing issues and to provide a caring, tailored response, based on the materials and programmes that HR has created.
Simply creating wellbeing programmes won’t guarantee that employees use them. They must be communicated and marketed to everyone in the company to ensure take-up. As well as involving senior management look at recruiting wellbeing champions in individual departments and locations to spread the word. Consider tailored communications to those at different stages of the employee lifecycle (such as returning to work after long-term leave) highlighting relevant support that is available.
Wellbeing in the workplace has never been more important – both to employees themselves and to their performance when at work. To support the highest levels of wellbeing it is therefore critical that organisations understand all its four dimensions and put in place the right resources to meet everyone’s needs.