The Future of the Workplace – health and wellbeing

Author - Alexandra Stocks

Date published:

Dr Paul Smith is Chief Strategy Officer of ART Health Solutions, who are based at the PROTO Emerging Technology Centre in Gateshead. ART take a data-driven approach to support their clients in making decisions about employee wellbeing and performance. Over the course of the pandemic, they’ve been helping businesses understand how the shift to remote working has impacted employee health and wellbeing. In this article from our Future of the Workplace report, Paul looks to the future and examines what businesses will need to do to get the best out of their teams.

Download our full Future of the Workplace report here, and read our launch blog here.

The world has faced huge challenges over the past year, with the pandemic creating a landscape that few could have anticipated or have ever seen before. Despite this, the resilience of humankind has shone through at frequent regularity as we try to create opportunities for growth and long term happiness. One such opportunity can be seen within the workplace wellbeing sector, which traditionally, despite huge investment, has largely failed to create and maintain healthy, happy workforces.

Pre-Covid, companies often invested low levels of funding to meet basic recommendations or guidelines around employee wellbeing. Short term initiatives were the norm, with success measured through engagement, rather than the long term health benefits delivered to employees. Could the last 12 months be the catalyst for change to bring workforce wellbeing to the top of the agenda for all businesses? Here are five areas that organisations should be considering as they develop effective workplace wellbeing strategies in the future:

1 Joint responsibility

It is often the case that the responsibility to enhance workplace wellbeing falls only on the shoulders of the organisation themselves. Meeting various employee health & safety guidelines, following specific office design standards and delivering ongoing wellbeing initiatives are all driven and led by the employer as they provide a duty of care to their workforce. This makes sense in theory, as employers must take responsibility for supporting the health of their employees no matter the type of business they are operating.

However, research would suggest that the most effective models allow for both the employer and employee taking joint responsibility for futureproofing their long-term health. Employees are likely to be more engaged, develop longer term habits and make positive lifestyle changes, if they have ownership of the process and control over their own actions. This can only be achieved by gaining an understanding of what they need and employers then providing them with the tools and material they need to take ownership and effective action.

“The most effective models allow for both the employer and employee taking joint responsibility for futureproofing their long-term health.”

2 Holistic Approach

Historically, workplace programmes focus on one or two pillars of wellbeing. Mental health is obviously a very important area as many individuals continue to struggle to maintain good levels of mental wellbeing. However, this focus on mental health could lead to other equally important pillars of wellbeing being under resourced, which will ultimately negatively impact an individual’s mental health. For example, an individual who has poor quality sleep, is very likely to make poor food choices the next day, is less likely to engage in physical activity and hence increase their feeling of unhappiness, worry and stress, causing another bad night’s sleep and so on.

Employers need to adopt a holistic approach by understanding that each pillar of wellbeing hugely effects the others. The world of elite sport provides a template for the corporate world in this respect. Athletes have every aspect of their life carefully managed to support their physiology, psychology, nutrition, recovery etc. to help them perform at their best as often as possible. Why would organisations approach things differently in the corporate world?

Whilst employers may not have the ability to provide around the clock support in all areas for all employees, they can place a greater emphasis on the importance of each pillar and provide tools to help employees feel & perform at their best.

3 Prevention

We’ve all heard the phrase, prevention is better than cure. This is particularly relevant in the world of workplace wellbeing, where the cost of reacting to employee wellbeing issues are typically high. Solutions such as online mental wellbeing material and mental health first aiders are all welcome additions to an employer’s wellbeing programme to provide support for those that need it at the right time.

However, are these same businesses investing time and money to understand how they can prevent their workforce from reaching the point where they need such help in the first place? Do they understand how their workplaces impact employee mental wellbeing? Are they supporting employees in leading an active life, including getting sufficient recovery, through their workplace policies to help support positive mental health?

Enhancing employee wellbeing involves more than providing reactive resources that are only putting a plaster over a larger issue. Building an eco-system that focusses on helping the workforce develop a healthy approach to their daily working & home life, will naturally create a culture of prevention, helping to reduce employee absenteeism & presenteeism, whilst reducing risk of serious health issues and disease.

“Each employee will have differing needs depending on their working environment, lifestyle and type of work, meaning a one size fits all approach simply cannot work.”

4 Personalised

With the future of work likely to include a hybrid model where employees spend a portion of their time working away from the office, it will become increasingly difficult for organisations to deliver effective wellbeing support.

Each employee will have differing needs depending on their working environment, lifestyle and type of work, meaning a one size fits all approach simply cannot work. Employers need to adopt a more bespoke, individualised approach that considers each employee’s needs and provides the right type & level of support to help them prosper. This personalised approach has traditionally been very difficult to achieve due to workforces sharing open plan offices and wellbeing programmes being centred around largescale initiatives such as in-house gyms, walk to work schemes etc.

With the move towards a hybrid approach involving office, flex and home working environments, an opportunity has arisen to personalise ways of working for employees and create bespoke wellbeing strategies to support this new normal.

5 Data Driven

Workplace wellbeing strategies should be underpinned by a foundation of data to inform decision making and develop evidence based solutions. For years, wellbeing has been high on the agenda of many organisations, yet companies still struggle to provide a clear ROI in this area. Often organisations use engagement rates to measure wellbeing initiatives, assuming that if a percentage of the workforce take part, then the programme was a success.

Unfortunately, often those who take part are those who are actually in a good place from a wellbeing perspective and taking part doesn’t equate to a long term improvement in wellbeing. Employers need to understand the current situation for each of their employees in order to deliver an effective strategy, the success of which needs to be tracked and measured on an ongoing basis. This should include both subjective & objective data to provide insights that aren’t just based on employee sentiment and include ongoing measurement in a holistic manner. The future of work should see organisations employing data rich tools to keep abreast of changes that occur across different employee types and to understand how variables such as the working environment, ways of working and job type effect wellbeing over time.

In conclusion, workplace wellbeing is top of many employer’s agenda as they finalise their future work strategy. This presents a unique opportunity to reinvent the wheel by taking proactive steps to enhance employee health and develop a strong, resilient and happy workforce that are better able to cope with the demands of everyday life.

Those organisations that embrace the change through the investment of appropriate resources & funding to help develop data led strategies to meet the needs of all employees will reap the rewards in the long-term.

Evidence shows that happier, healthier workforces are more productive, think more clearly and have a greater loyalty to their employer, helping to reduce costs and increase profits in the long-term. Why would any business owner or senior stakeholder resist the opportunity to create such a positive outcome within their own business?

Paul Smith

Download the Chamber’s full Future of the Workplace report here, and read our launch blog here.

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