Employee wellbeing is a duty of care for leaders


Russ Lidstone, Group CEO at The Creative Engagement GroupChairman CMN, Mentor Marketing Academy, RSA Fellow, Advisor & Bloom Ambassador

Even before the pandemic, employers’ concern for employee well-being was increasing. In 2019, a Deloitte study found that large employers in the United States on average $3.6 million on wellness programs at a cost of $762 per employee, and the global corporate wellness market grew at an accelerated compound annual growth rate of 7%. Benefits programs, office space and health initiatives were all part of the ways employers supported employees.

Fast forward to Covid-19, and employee wellbeing moved even higher up the agenda of many companies, largely due to concerns about the unknown impact of the pandemic on mental wellbeing.

And the concern was well founded. More recently Deloitte research in the UK, poor mental health (absenteeism, presenteeism and employee turnover) was found to have a direct impact on employer costs estimated at $59 to $62 billion. It also highlighted that supporting employees through measures such as screening, training, awareness and targeted interventions can yield a return of nearly $6 for every $1 invested.

Employees recognize its importance in addition to any physical health incentives. A report from the American Psychological Association recently found that “81 percent of workers agree that the way their employees support mental health will be an important consideration for them when looking for future work.”

However, as we emerge from the pandemic and employers face new macroeconomic and geopolitical challenges, there is a clear danger that well-being will become a priority for leaders. In many ways, I find that there is still a lack of honest conversations about areas traditionally fraught with stigma, such as financial or mental health issues. Given the moral and business imperative to recognize our role in employee well-being, I believe that leaders need to consider several factors.

Well-being is multifaceted.

Given the recent shift in emphasis from physical to mental well-being, we need to ensure that the discourse surrounding well-being in the workplace recognizes the full spectrum of well-being (physical, social, mental, financial and career).

These well-being areas are unmistakably linked. For example, the cost of living crisis will inevitably impact people’s mental well-being, so companies need to be equally aware of the direct and indirect impacts to continue focusing on these issues at the pandemic level.

Every situation is individual.

It is not possible to take a general approach to well-being. Whenever possible, leaders should be aware of individual circumstances and milestones in people’s lives where they may need additional support or care. Every employee faces different challenges, ranging from returning to work after pregnancy, starting college straight away, specific health concerns or losing a loved one. It’s important to create an open dialogue and really understand where wellness support is needed.

Employees must be empowered.

In addition to positive leadership role modeling, employees should feel that they have a safe space to discuss their needs and be able to take control of their own well-being. This means providing the right tools (such as access to EAP, support to work groups, mental health first aiders and information on all areas of well-being). A top-down approach to wellbeing will have less impact than an empowering approach.

Increasing capacity is key.

Understandably, line managers aren’t necessarily equipped to have the right conversations about wellness or know the signs to spot. This has become even more challenging in a hybrid and remote working world. Therefore, we must focus our efforts and energies on developing the capabilities of line managers and providing the right levels of support from HR and People teams. Content and capacity development are needed to strengthen a holistic approach.

Listen more than you talk.

Hybrid or remote working brings new challenges, such as loneliness or a lack of connection with others. Businesses need to address these issues and see how they can better connect and support, listen and respond, not just on specific awareness days, but throughout the year.

The most important thing for companies to do in times of change is to listen to their employees and actively consider employees’ feelings. Walk the halls, be open to formal and informal feedback, and look at integrating digital sentiment tools to support leaders. This enables stakeholders to spot trends and develop behavioral interventions before problems arise.

Tactics is not a strategy.

Often companies have good initiatives but no clear strategy. Only in the UK, according to CIPD, 51% of employees thought companies had an effective wellness strategy. Sometimes companies miss the point because employees feel that their company does not take proper care of them or are not aware of their individual circumstances. Initiatives such as one-time yoga classes will be viewed as misinformed tactics if not supported by a broader welfare strategy.

Well-being is a leadership issue.

Finally, and critically, employee well-being should be an issue owned by the CEO or top management. If people are the greatest asset of many companies and poor welfare directly affects business performance, then we must take our duty of care seriously. We must lead by example by sharing our own approach to wellbeing, resilience and stress management.

There has never been a more important time to develop and learn from each other about the multifaceted nature of well-being in the workplace. It’s a topic that will be on our priority list for the foreseeable future and it’s the key to better employee attraction, retention and productivity, plus one of the drivers of a successful work culture.

In short, to be a good, sustainable company in this era of shifting tectonic plates, leaders and managers must prioritize well-being in the workplace.

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