What is Employee Wellbeing (and why is it important?)
Employee wellbeing used to be synonymous with physical safety: the prevention of accidents and the reduction of harm in the working environment. But the idea has evolved. Now employers are focusing attention on the mental and emotional wellbeing of their employees.
Common sense tells us that people who are stressed out or burned out don’t perform as well at work. The research confirms it, too. Wellbeing is about creating working environments and systems that support employees. It’s about listening and responding appropriately to the challenges they face both inside the workplace and outside. Workload affects wellbeing. Poor mental health does too. It’s ensuring that line managers can solve employee-related challenges as they arise and before they escalate.
Some business owners may roll their eyes at this. But improved wellbeing in the workplace can reduce cases of presenteeism and absenteeism – two things that cost the UK economy £73 billion each year. Higher levels of workplace wellbeing correlate with higher productivity and happiness amongst employees. It will also often improve a company’s profitability and efficiency.
What is Productivity?
According to Tech Target, employee productivity is ‘…an assessment of the efficiency of a worker or a group of workers.’
Productivity will look different to every business. It’s ultimately a measure of employee output. Simply put: productive employees are more efficient and more effective in their work whilst unproductive employees contribute less to a business’s success.
One example of poor employee productivity (that’s connected with wellbeing) is presenteeism. Many of us will have seen it first-hand or experienced it ourselves. It’s when employees go to work even when they’re feeling unwell or unmotivated. According to the website, High Speed Training, 45% of organisations say that, on average, a quarter of their staff will go to work sick. The Harvard Business Review writes how presenteeism cuts employee productivity by a third; it costs businesses more than absent employees.
Concentration and focus go out of the window when we’re not feeling well or when we’re distracted by problems at home. We go through the motions of the job. We turn up but it’s harder to find creative solutions to problems and it’s easier to make mistakes. Employees in these scenarios inevitably underperform and productivity within the business drops.
Presenteeism occurs for several reasons.
1) Unmanageable workloads may make taking time off difficult
2) An employer doesn’t offer paid sick days
3) Employees are low on annual leave
4) A lack of available staff to cover in the event of an absence
5) Workers may worry about being disciplined or penalised for phoning in sick
6) Toxic workplace cultures often have a ‘suck it up’ attitude which can make admitting illness feel like a weakness.
7) Workers may be too embarrassed to admit that they’re struggling with their mental or physical health.
Building better working environments, where employees are assets rather than just payroll numbers, can have a positive impact on productivity and, therefore, profit.
What’s the Link Between Wellness and Productivity?
The World Health Organisation links wellbeing to ‘higher levels of employee engagement and lower levels of absenteeism and turnover.’ This is based on human relations theory: an idea that higher morale leads to higher productivity. Multiple studies have concluded the same thing. Researchers at the London School of Economics found a direct link between employee performance and wellbeing and productivity across all areas of a business.
A Gallup study concluded the same thing but this study also made the connection between engaged employees, higher levels of productivity and an increase in company profits. “Organizations that are the best in engaging their employees achieve earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors.”
An article for Forbes magazine, concludes a similar point: employee satisfaction leads to higher productivity and lower staff turnover. It agrees, too, that higher wellbeing at work, leads to higher business profitability.
Gallup’s survey on its client database also sheds some interesting light on the link between wellbeing and productivity. It found that engaged employees with job flexibility worked more hours than the average employee and still reported higher wellbeing. Concluding that when employees feel inspired, motivated and supported in their work, they do more of it but without the negative health impacts of those employees who don’t.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that employee burnout is on the rise. It describes burnout as chronic workplace stress that isn’t successfully managed. The WHO goes on to break the definition down further by writing that the condition is typified by – feelings of extreme tiredness, increased mental distance from the job, negative or cynical feelings related to that job and a reduction in efficiency.
Surprisingly, the number of hours a person works isn’t the biggest cause of burnout. It’s actually ‘how people experience their workload’ that’s the main contributing factor. One study by HSE found that 44% of workplace stress is caused by workload.
Gallup lists burnout’s 5 most common causes.
- Unfair treatment
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from managers
- Lack of managerial support
- And unreasonable time pressures
The good news is that there’s nothing in Gallup’s top-5 that a company can’t fix itself. Internal problems are entirely within the wheelhouse of a good HR and management team. If your business is struggling from low productivity amongst employees, then take comfort in the fact that you can change this. Unfortunately, managers are sometimes one of the biggest obstacles. One study by Deloitte found that 24% of line managers don’t believe that staff wellbeing is their responsibility and that includes managing the workloads of those they’re looking after.
It’s concerning given that burnout is now so keenly associated with workload. It also highlights that workplace wellbeing has to be about more than just sticking a meditation pod inside an office. If the low productivity in your workplace is caused by poor workload management, then hot yoga at lunchtime or beanbags in the boardroom won’t make any difference.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff. This means supporting them before they hit rock-bottom and sign-off sick for three months.
The growing global mental health crisis only makes employee wellbeing more important. Mental health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK. According to the UK Government, the cost to the economy (including loss of productivity at work) is around £105.2 billion. Deloitte breaks this down further Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year which is up 16% since 2016.
Understanding the link between wellbeing and productivity, therefore, is vital.
How to Improve the Link Between Wellbeing and Productivity
Ask Your Employees
Go directly to the source and ask your employees. Find out how secure and supported they feel in their job role. Ask if they’re satisfied with their work and with the work of others. How happy do they feel? Get them to identify any areas of tension or conflict within their role. This may be with a specific manager or it could be with a policy.
Several workplace questionnaire templates exist online including one commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions. We also have an article on our website exploring the ways that businesses can measure wellness. Getting a realistic picture of company culture is a great place to start. The sooner problems are identified the sooner (and easier) they can be fixed. Surveys should be anonymous but if employees are willing to go on record with their experiences then encourage that. Wellbeing shouldn’t be a one-off event but a conversation that’s revisited regularly. You can always outsource this data gathering to an external company if you’re not sure which information to collect and which to ignore.
Look for Commonalities
Are certain themes cropping up in the surveys or conversations with employees? Is staff turnover higher in one department than in others? There may be a single cause behind a drop in productivity or low morale. There’s little point in arranging meditation classes if the issue is workload-related. A staff night out won’t solve a problem with a line manager. This is where outsourcing a survey to external companies can help. Having the data is one thing, but knowing what to do with the responses is another.
Have Good Managers
Putting the right people in management roles can have a significant impact on employee motivation. Not everyone promoted into higher positions have the attitude, skillset or experience to become an effective manager or leader. Poor managers create divisions between management and employees. They also allow situations to escalate.
Training will help those without direct experience. It doesn’t mean raising a department of mommy-coddlers but rather fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing aspects of their job with others. Ideally enough so that any problems can be flagged before they become unmanageable. Equally, employees should be supported rather than just appraised for the work they’re doing. Regularly reviewing work and caseloads can help ensure that employees are being given new work unfairly.
Opportunities to Grow?
Are there opportunities within the business for hardworking employees to advance? Is there a promotion track? How long do employees stay with the business, typically? Making it easier for employees to move between departments can help. Encouraging them to take training courses or to expand their roles can help them feel more fulfilled and, oftentimes, increase loyalty to a company. Recruiting internally from a qualified workforce that you trust helps, too.
Some companies offer staff access to third-party counselling services. This can be a confidential phone number or even a referral to speak to a relevant therapist. Appointing wellness officers can help, too. These are managers or employees who act as signposts to supporting services but who will also become a contact point for employees with job concerns.
Be realistic about the modern working world. Flexible working does wonders in some organisations. It can attract new talent that may be otherwise unsuitable in a typical 9 to 5 format. As long as the work is being done efficiently and to the set standard then what does it matter if someone starts work two hours earlier to finish two hours earlier?
Flexible working also makes it easier for those with children. It also encourages employees to support their own wellbeing needs by making it easier to attend appointments. During the pandemic, employers reported fewer sick days when people were working from home. It also eliminated contact between sick and healthy workers. Removing the need for a long commute saves employees money and time. Whilst allowing that flexibility is also a sign of trust. Employees that feel trusted and valued enough to benefit from bespoke working rules will be more productive. It will also make businesses more attractive to prospective employees during recruitment.
Encourage people to take breaks away from their desks. Creating an inviting kitchen and shared dining space can help. Negotiating discounts with local cafes or food delivery services can encourage people to get up and away from their screens. Breaks give the body and brain a chance to re-focus and re-set. Taking some space and time away from our immediate environment can help support stronger mental health. During lunch breaks, people tend to talk to one another and this can help cultivate more open and candid conversations between workmates.
Exercise not only improves physical and mental health but it boosts productivity, too. Too much time sitting at a desk can leave people feeling sluggish and unmotivated. Two things which also contribute to a lack of productivity. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Some businesses are now choosing to put indoor bikes into their office spaces. Add the Energym RE:GEN and kill two birds with one stone: help your business become more sustainable, too. Some employers set up lunchtime walking clubs or invite yoga teachers in for a class or subsidise gym membership. Setting up friendly competitions or step or mile targets can also encourage people to move more when they’re working.
Creating a Nice Work Setting
Creating a pleasant work environment can do wonders for employee wellbeing. Natural light is ideal. Bright welcoming spaces that people enjoy working from are best. Employers can add seating areas where people can chat and connect. Arranging social events or ordering take-out at lunch and eating together helps build a more cohesive team. Outdoor seating areas can be great in the sunshine and encourage people to take that break from their desks.
Join a Work-Perk Programme
Work perk programmes are a nice bonus for staff. Employers pay a fee to an external company and their employees get access to a range of special offers and discounts which can include reduced gym membership, food delivery services, and even discounts on utility bills.
Embrace Social Causes
Aligning the business with a charity or social cause that’s popular with employees and then running events or fundraising can help workers feel as if they’re engaging positively with the causes that matter.
Arranging staff socials and days or nights out can encourage friendships to form. Employees may be more likely to talk and destress with colleagues they feel a connection to rather than with managers.
Employee wellbeing isn’t just for big companies with hot yoga pods and unlimited holidays. Often it comes down to better communication between managers and employees. It's having people in the team who recognise the link between burnout and workload and who can help cultivate an honest and open work environment.
It's about recognising when someone is struggling or underperforming and getting them back on track to being not only a productive employee but a healthier and happy human, too. Employees are assets. Companies that take the time and care to ensure they have a happy and productive workforce often find they have a better and more profitable business at the end of it.