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What does workplace health support mean now?

Damian Lenihan, Executive Director - Aetna International

With hyper-connectivity and performance pressures continuing to mould business culture, health and well-being support in the workplace is arguably more important than ever before. As we strive to balance hectic work and home lives, as well as look after our physical and mental health, we increasingly rely on our employers to put in place measures that will enable us to perform to the best of our ability during the working day and beyond. Unfortunately, however, recent global research[1] has highlighted that there are some crucial areas where companies are falling short.

Once seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ bonus, comprehensive health and well-being programmes are now increasingly linked to employee performance – in fact, research shows that the provision of these benefits has a direct impact on job satisfaction, engagement and retention. Yet, there is a huge chasm between what businesses think they offer compared to what employees think they have access to.

For example, although 94% of employers agree that they want employees to prioritise physical and mental health over work, most employees don’t believe the support they are offered is good enough. What’s more, while 70% of employers believe they provide good access to programmes that support health and wellness, less than a quarter of employees think the same. These statistics build a disconcerting picture of businesses that appear out of touch with what is actually happening on the ground.

Setting priorities

When it comes the UK’s principal workplace health concerns, it is perhaps unsurprising that good mental health care tops the chart. After all, everyone has mental health which we experience as moving along a spectrum of poor to outstanding, and it’s well understood that supporting this at work aids morale, focus, productivity and eventually profitability. However, what is surprising is that, from employees’ perspectives, this key priority is not always reflected in the support available at work – nearly a third of employees rate their company’s current mental health support as poor.

It’s also significant to note, given the competitiveness of job markets and the difficulties in recruiting and retaining top talent, that two thirds of workers stated that they wouldn’t join a company if it didn’t have a clear and transparent policy on supporting those with mental health issues including stress, anxiety or depression.

Another important priority for UK workers is flexible working hours. Employees rated this as the number one way in which their employer could help them be healthier, ahead of access to a gym or even a reduced workload. This finding was consistent across all age groups, genders and income brackets surveyed. However, despite this clear demand, few industries and businesses seem to recognise its value. The trend in flexible working arrangements has been broadly flat or increasing very slowly[2], with only 13% of UK HR Directors believing that flexible working policies have a positive impact on employee retention.

A final major health concern is job stress – incidentally, the top reason employees gave for poor sleep. The negative health implications of stress on emotional and physical wellness are well-documented and, if not addressed, can lead to anxiety, irritability, exhaustion and burnout to name but a few. Additionally, excessive stress at work can soon encroach on our lives and behaviours at home, eating into the rest and recovery time that is so essential to optimally functioning as a person.

In spite of this, the support offered by employers often falls short. Again, a third of workers viewed their company provision for stress as poor. Given the links between stress and productivity –

in the last year alone, the UK has lost 12.8 million working days due to work-related stress[3] – this is an area ripe for exploration of more effective management.

Making a difference

Yet despite the substantial shortfall between employees’ and HR teams’ perceptions obviously requiring attention, the good news is that there’s a growing awareness that the answer lies in more than just a blanket offering of gym memberships or more fruit in the office. The sticking point seems to be fear of the unknown – almost one in four businesses claim they are unsure of what employees want from their benefits package and nearly half are concerned about potential cost implications. So, for employers who aren’t sure where to start, improving internal communications clearly has to be a priority. In fact, the key to effectively closing the gap between the polarised perceptions of employers and employees begins with taking the time to understand the unique mix of mental, emotional, physical and organisational challenges faced in each specific company.

Then, for companies wanting to motivate a cultural shift without having to necessarily invest more, it’s crucial to realise the full extent and value of the tools already at their disposal, and to communicate what services are available, how they are relevant and how to access them to employees. It could well be that low cost solutions – such as an open dialogue about challenges, better signposting to mental health resources already in place, online mindfulness and stress management programmes or even the empowerment and autonomy to take advantage of flexible working practices – are the things that make a tangible difference.

By giving employees a space and a time to voice want they would find beneficial, and by really listening to what is said, companies that value their workforce will be in the strongest position to work together for the best health – and by extension, business – outcomes for all.

 The report ‘Tackling Polarised Perceptions in Corporate Health and Wellness’ examines the experiences of 1,000 HR Directors and 4,000 employees across the globe, including 255 HR Directors and 1,012 employees in the UK.
[1] https://www.aetnainternational.com/en/about-us/explore/future-health/tackling-polarised-perceptions-in-corporate-health-and-wellness.html
[2] Survey Report 2019: UK Working Lives, The CIPD Job Quality Index
[3] Health and Safety Executive: Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019

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