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A new look at wellbeing

Beate O’Neil

Employers in the UK are rolling out workplace wellbeing strategies at an unprecedented rate, according to a new research report. ‘Employee Wellbeing Research 2017: The evolution of workplace wellbeing in the UK’ from Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) in association with Punter Southall Health & Protection. Comment from Beate O’Neil, Head of Wellbeing Consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection.

Forty-five percent of UK companies have a clearly-defined wellbeing strategy in place, compared to less than a third (30 percent) in 2016 – and 26 percent have had a strategy for more than three years. Of those that don’t, virtually all plan or wish to implement one – with 46 percent planning on implementing one this year, 24 percent in the next few years and a quarter (25 percent) having it on their ‘wish list’.

Over a third (37 percent) launched their wellbeing strategy to improve employee engagement, and just over a quarter (26 percent) to improve organisational culture.  Other drivers included improving productivity levels (11 percent), reducing long and short-term sickness absence (6 percent & 5 percent) and retaining talent (five percent). Beate O’Neil, Head of Wellbeing Consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection said, “The jump in companies promoting employee health and wellbeing to improve their culture and engage employees demonstrates that wellbeing is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but an area of growing strategic importance.”

“Whereas in the past many employers struggled to obtain budgets for wellbeing initiatives, almost two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents with a wellbeing strategy now have a dedicated budget. The median annual spend per employee on wellbeing is between £51 and £75, which is encouraging.” Spending on wellbeing is expected to rise fastest amongst organisations currently without a wellbeing strategy this year, as they play ‘catch-up’ and introduce initiatives to improve employee engagement and office culture.

86 percent of employers are focusing on promoting physical activity and 82 percent on mental health in their wellbeing strategy. However, there is less emphasis on eliminating negative behaviours such as smoking, alcohol use and drug addiction – suggesting these need a more individualistic approach. Some employers also see this as only offering support to a few rather than the whole workforce.

The top wellbeing initiatives offered by employers are employee assistance programmes (89 percent), followed by discounted or free gym membership (78 percent) and health screenings (63 percent). Employers also claimed that employee assistance programmes (71 percent) were the most effective for their business, followed by on-site medical support (66 percent) and mental health support (56 percent); Employees on the other hand favoured free fruit (60 percent), discounted or free gym membership (42 percent) and on-site medical support (41 percent).

One of the fastest growing areas of wellbeing for 2017 is sleep management, with the number of companies including sleep in their wellbeing strategy set to double from 42 percent to 88 percent this year. The number of companies offering support for carers is also primed for a big jump (from 37 percent to 83 percent). Financial education is another priority. More than a quarter of companies (27 percent) plan to add financial education or guidance to their health and wellbeing strategy over the next 12 months, and almost half (49 percent) will over the next few years. Others will add ‘mindfulness’ sessions (39 percent) and health/wellbeing apps for use on smartphones (43 percent).

The number of respondents offering health and wellbeing apps on smart phones has more than doubled since last year, and they are now offered by almost one in five organisations – up from one in ten a year ago. Similarly the number of employers providing access to a virtual GP has grown (16 percent vs 12 percent), as has the number offering wearable devices, such as pedometers or more advanced GP trackers (14 percent vs 10 percent).  When it comes to how employers are engaging their workforce, there are various approaches being used. The main methods of communication used are email (73 percent), intranet (70 percent) and posters and leaflets (63 percent), whilst over a quarter (26 percent) had a dedicated online wellbeing website or portal and 25 percent use wellbeing champions.  One of the most effective ways to get messages out is through line managers; however, only around a third (32 percent) of employers train line managers to promote employee wellbeing.

Beate O’Neil commented, “Having a wellbeing strategy in place is not enough – employers need to communicate the benefits, train line managers to support their programmes and use good technology to support their campaigns. Many companies aren’t making the most of social media, apps, audio or video (podcasts or YouTube) and text messaging to communicate their initiatives. They could be missing a trick particularly in terms of engaging younger, tech savvy workers.” Debi O’Donovan, Director at the Reward & Employee Benefits Association, said: “We have witnessed a tremendous increase in interest in employee wellbeing strategies over the past few years, and a growing recognition of the business benefits it can deliver. While for many employee wellbeing is primarily focused on physical and mental health, those at the vanguard are increasingly viewing employee wellbeing as the new total reward, the new employee engagement. This research highlights some of the exciting developments ahead and is a must read for all senior business leaders, and HR and reward professionals,” Beate O’Neil, Head of Wellbeing Consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection said: “It is clear that employee wellbeing is firmly on the agenda for many forward thinking organisations. A happy and healthy workforce is likely to be a more productive and engaged workforce, and looking after your employee wellbeing is a win-win for everyone.”

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