Elevating Worker Wellbeing: A Practical Guide for Employers

Johanna Leggatt  |  Jan 21, 2022

Meaningful workplace wellbeing programs can protect your staff, as well as your bottom line. But what exactly does a good employee wellbeing program look like?

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In the post-pandemic work world, where hybrid arrangements and flexible work are the new normal, it’s never been more important to offer your employees health and wellbeing programs that genuinely support their needs. In fact, many workers are refusing to settle for anything less. A recent study from Atlassian and PwC Australia showed more than 50% of US and Australian workers would consider changing jobs for remote work opportunities. Not only that, some 69% of Australians claim they would turn down a promotion to protect their mental health.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Work Burnout

The impact of coronavirus and its effects on society can’t be under-estimated as a driving force in this priority shift. According to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress due to the pandemic. Such statistics comes as no surprise to Louise Watts, director of HPC Global’s Transition Hub, which works with some of the top companies in Australia on workforce change. Prior to the pandemic, “there were efforts being made on workplace wellbeing that were probably more notional, more in the form of lunchtime yoga or a webinar,” she says. “Now, as people are much more aware of their own health and wellbeing, it’s top of the list of what employees are looking for.” The business case for creating effective wellbeing programs is compelling. According to The Australia Institute’s Investing in Better Mental Health in Australian Workplaces report in 2021, 15 to 45% of mental health problems experienced by employed people are attributable to conditions in their workplaces. This amounts to costs of at least $15.8 billion to $17.4 billion each year in Australia from workplace-associated mental ill health, the report contends. Even long before the pandemic, The World Economic Forum claimed worker burnout cost the global economy some £255 billion a year (AU$488 billion) in absenteeism and lost productivity, prompting the World Health Organisation to predict a pandemic of burnout within a decade. “Many people are saying, ‘We can't go back to the grind as it used to be’ – the genie is now out of the bottle,” says Watts. “It has definitely given rise to brands thinking about what they can do to retain their best talent.”

Beyond Lip Service: Workplace Wellbeing That Works

Not all workplace wellbeing programs are created equal. According to recent research from the Australian College of Applied Professions (ACAP), almost half of 1000 Australian workers surveyed felt employers were merely applying “box-ticking” measures to mental health. According to Watts, the best wellbeing programs are those that arise organically from a strong workplace culture. “The best organisations will say, ‘We’re creating a place where people actually feel that they benefit from coming to work and it’s stimulating,’” she says. “For the worker, this means being seen, feeling recognised and that people care about who they are and what they have got to offer.” The office layout matters as well, with strategic consultancy Future X Collective (FXC) encouraging leaders to create offices that are well-designed with more natural light, greenery and artwork, as well as plenty of opportunities for collaboration and interaction. As part of its research, FXC found that, post-pandemic, employees value ‘collaboration’ first and foremost, whereas previously it was ‘focus work’. “This change highlights the important role of businesses in improving Australia’s mental health,” says co-founder and partner of Future X Collective, Angela Ferguson. “By providing clear areas for social activities and collaboration, employees can move to different spaces within the office depending on what they want to achieve.” Workers at logistics facilities look set to reap the rewards of this design-centred approach too. Commercial property company JLL points to an evolution in warehouses from personality-free sheds to human-centric spaces featuring indoor and outdoor areas for staff relaxation, as well as healthy food services.

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Employee Wellbeing: How Companies Are Responding

Encouragingly, many businesses are already making considerable inroads into holistic workplace wellbeing. Melbourne’s Monash University, for example, runs a program of services, events and classes for staff across the pillars of physical, mental, nutritional and occupational health. The university has been using a “wellbeing KPI” since 2009 to gauge the uptake of wellbeing services among staff and has regularly reached its goal of at least 30% of individual engagement in at least one wellbeing event per year. Google likewise set an early trend in the pandemic by offering “reset days” for staff, and the company employs a dedicated wellness manager who works with a range of experts, including psychologists and professional athletes, to support staff wellbeing and resilience. Last year, Deloitte Australia introduced a new flexible working model, called Deloitte Experience, that offers a range of bespoke work modes and leave options for wellbeing, caring, volunteering and cultural holidays. Most recently, UK-based travel and insurance company for the over-50s, Saga, will start offering employees a week of paid leave to celebrate the birth of a grandchild in an acknowledgment that “employees have relationships and responsibilities outside of work”. Other companies are turning to external consultants or partnerships to bolster existing programs. Flexi-space provider WeWork, for example, has entered a partnership with surf therapy program Waves of Wellness (WOW) to offer all its Australian employees access to its mental health-focused leadership training and corporate programs. Wellbeing also extends to supporting healthier at-home habits: Officeworks has taken a practical approach with Flexiworks, which enables employers to offer at-home ergonomics assessments for employees, alongside practical and necessary WFA kit, such as ergonomic tech and furniture.

The Future of Workplace Wellness

Naturally, technology is also playing a leading role in the facilitation of health and wellbeing programs. Tech platform [cu]health has been designed as a “virtual medical practice” – a corporate healthcare provider that provides staff access to GPs, psychologists, dietitians and health coaches. Another platform, called FormScore, was created to allow people to record their “form” or how they are feeling on a particular day. It can allow colleagues and leaders to apportion work according to mood, and stay abreast of staff mental health. While Watts is a champion of using tech as part of workplace wellbeing programs, she emphasises the fundamental need for human connection in 2022. “Tech will play a role, but I think, particularly post-pandemic, we're now really clear that it can't just be tech-driven as it does cause fatigue when you're on it too much,” she says. “Whereas when you are with people, it's energising.” In fact, Watts would like to see an overhaul of the standard Employee Assistance Program (EAP), usually accessed at crisis moments, in favour of proactive and holistic worker wellbeing consultations. “We should be encouraging health and wellbeing coaching rather than an EAP, which workers tend to use only when they feel it is the last straw,” she says. “We need a refreshed contribution to people's health and wellbeing through coaching, good leadership andconversation that is about the development of [a company’s] most precious asset.” Personalisation is key here. In a recent Gartner HR survey, only 46% of employees felt their organisation’s wellbeing programs were personalised, and a meagre 19% reported their worker wellbeing program provides access to five or more offerings. Watts notes that the top companies are focusing on the skills and needs of each individual worker, and she predicts a bespoke, highly personalised approach to worker wellbeing will become more common. “We're seeing the great companies saying, ‘OK, let's discover who you are. Let's develop you and let's give you the direction and the opportunities that you want to seek out,’” she says. “And that's the way companies are keeping their staff.”

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