Worker wellbeing – the big debate

Worker wellbeing - Arms up yoga at work

Worker wellbeing is a key concern of companies all over the globe in 2021, as countries reach various stages of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The problem is not born only of the Covid- 19 pandemic, however. It was an issue way before then, as many people have highlighted, but it’s just that the Covid-19 crisis, with its many impacts on people, has brought the topic more sharply into focus.

Today, worker wellbeing is well and truly a boardroom issue, to the extent that companies are appointing senior roles to that end. Whilst some are asking the health and safety functions to add wellbeing or resilience to their growing list of responsibilities, others have their HR functions firmly focused on the topic.

What is worker wellbeing?

Worker wellbeing is a diverse topic and defined by different people in different ways. The words wellbeing and mental health are often used interchangeably, and wellbeing can be broad or narrow.

If wellbeing looks purely at psychological health, leaving physical health aside, or to the occupational health part of the health and safety function, then the definition is narrow, albeit still a sizeable undertaking.

Other companies are taking a wider approach, calling it whole person wellbeing, and looking at other contributory factors such as financial wellbeing, social wellbeing and more.

The New Economics Foundation did a research study in 2008 and found there were ‘five ways to wellbeing’:

  1. Connect with people – reach out to others
  2. Be active – exercise and sports
  3. Be curious – go out and look at your surroundings (mindfulness)
  4. Keep learning – take up a new hobby
  5. Give – simple acts of kindness

These ‘five ways’ provide us with a useful framework to define wellbeing, and a framework to help employees look after their own.

Focusing on employees, however, is only one part of the problem. The organisational context they find themselves in is the other part. Let’s look at that now.

How big is the problem?

Worker wellbeing is a sizeable problem for companies and workers, and it has only got worse since Covid-19 struck in March 2020.

The UK’s HSE (Health and Safety Executive) estimated that in the 2019/20 period, before the pandemic, there were 0.8 million work-related cases (new or long-standing) of stress, depression or anxiety.

In the US, according to the American Institute of Stress, job stress costs US industry more than three hundred billion dollars a year, because of accidents, absenteeism and more. And that is without considering the terrible human impact. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has well documented the scale and complexity of the problem, in his hard-hitting and aptly named book, Dying for a Paycheck,i(2019).

Stress is a global problem, and according to the International Labor Organization, it contributes to the deaths of 2.8 million workers every year.

It is no surprise then that according to Josh Bersin in his HR Predictions for 2021 Report,ii the US corporate wellbeing market is worth more than $45bn and grew enormously in 2020. The report predicts that that one of the questions on the minds of senior leaders in 2021 is “Do we need a chief health officer?” Whereas before the pandemic the topic of wellbeing was just beginning to emerge, it is now on full throttle, with companies’ main concern being mental health.

In another report by

The wide-reaching consequences of Covid-19 have taken their toll on people in so many ways. Grief, anxiety around the virus, lack of social contact, being separated from our loved ones, loss of confidence at work and financial concerns are all impacting our mental health. Where mental health concerns were an ill wind pre-Covid, they have now become a hurtling tornado.

What is stopping companies from tackling it?

There are a number of challenges which make it difficult for companies to create a culture where employee wellbeing comes first:

  1. No clear ownership of the topic – there is often an internal conflict over which function or department owns wellbeing, with HR feeling it belongs with them because it is about people, and health and safety feeling it belongs with them, because it is about health – mental and physical
  2. Companies are firefighting – Due to the size and urgency of the problem, companies are rushing to treat the symptoms (wellbeing incidents) rather than the root causes (what in the company environment might be contributing to those incidents). All of this makes it even more difficult for them to get on top of the problem
  3. Focus is not on prevention – companies are not taking a preventive approach to wellbeing, for one of three reasons – either because of the firefighting mentioned earlier, a lack of understanding around the root causes or if they do understand them, a lack of knowledge around how to treat them. The new ISO45003 standard for psychological health and safety in organisations and psychosocial risk will go a long way to help organisations with the latter
  4. Competing drivers at all levels – The key drivers of behaviour at all levels – organisational, team and individual – are not the ones required for wellbeing, and as such, are often more likely to override them if a conflict emerges. In most organisations, the key driver is profit, which means that when push comes to shove, and in spite of all good intentions, this priority will often take precedence. In teams, the behaviour of the majority, or those perceived as having some form of influence in the informal pecking order, will influence the behaviour of the rest. And in individuals, we see something called ‘negativity bias’, where we are quicker to see what is going wrong before what is going right, even though the latter can be a stronger driver of behavioural change.

How can we make wellbeing easier to tackle?

For wellbeing to be successful in any organisation, it needs to be a long-term and sustainable approach. Otherwise, you won’t be around long enough to reap the benefits and return on investment will be difficult to prove.

the CIPD and Simplyhealth, called Health and Wellbeing at Work (2021),iii more than two-fifths of businesses are ‘extremely concerned’ about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health.

Your approach to wellbeing will also be made far easier, and easier to make stick, if it contains elements that can integrate easily into your existing culture, systems and processes.

Once the above two conditions are met, it will then be easier to make wellbeing add value to your business, helping you be better at everything you do. The value will come from skills and behaviours applied to wellbeing then being leveraged across other areas of the business.

Employees that take responsibility for managing their own wellbeing, for example, will take responsibility for managing other important things too. And where wellbeing begins to dovetail into other business processes, it is those processes that will begin to benefit, as well as employee wellbeing itself.

What are the key success factors?

The key success factors for worker wellbeing are therefore as follows:

  1. A whole company approach – Getting the company to focus on wellbeing requires behavioural change, and this will only work if a whole company approach is adopted. This is because in organisations, behaviours do not happen in isolation, rather they happen within the context of the environment in which they occur, and are influenced by the behaviours of others
  2. Commitment from the top – This whole company approach requires a top-down cascade, with wellbeing as a non-negotiable value for all and supported by three clear principles (beliefs): 1. Everyone is responsible for wellbeing 2. Wellbeing comes before everything and 3. We can predict and prevent all wellbeing incidents
  3. An ambitious vision – Getting employees (and the company) to focus on wellbeing for the long-term will require staying power, and that’s why it is important to set an ambitious vision for wellbeing that will motivate and inspire all employees to engage with the topic of wellbeing for many years to come
  4. A process to follow – Any long-term endeavour can get lost without a process to follow. But wellbeing as a strategic issue at work is relatively new, and a proven process may be hard to find. This may mean adopting a process that has worked for other strategic issues, such as one for the design and delivery of a sustainable health and safety culture
  5. A clear set of behaviours for wellbeing – If we want our employees to take ownership of their own wellbeing, then we need them to be wellbeing leaders. If we want them to be leaders in wellbeing, we need to define what that means. Yes, we need a single set of wellbeing behaviours that everyone can sign up to. These five habits are a good place to start – Move, Connect, Breathe, Switch-off and Sleep (see below for detail)

Where is the blueprint for success?

Having read about the challenges facing organisations when it comes to wellbeing, you may be wondering if there is a blueprint for success, and there is. In ‘People Power – Transform your Business in the Era of Safety and Wellbeing’, you’ll find a 3-step framework for building a lasting wellbeing movement in your organisation. It has been tried and tested in the field of health and safety and works equally well for wellbeing. It’s called ‘Build, Buzz, Bake’, and here is what is unique about it:

  1. It is a long-term, sustainable and preventive approach
  2. It spreads ownership for wellbeing throughout the organisation, between company and employees
  3. It gives employees the skills to manage their own wellbeing

What are the five wellbeing habits?

The five wellbeing habits mentioned earlier are based on the yoga philosophy of wellbeing, covering both physical and mental health, and devised by Yoga Reading Director and yoga expert Katia Major in partnership with Leaderlike founder and health, safety and wellbeing leadership specialist Karen J. Hewitt. Here they are in more detail:

  1. Move – A regular and lifelong sequence of yoga postures can not only prevent health issues but also alleviate existing ones. Regular movement can easily become a habit when integrated into an individual’s day and in a way that works for them
  2. Connect – Connecting is not just about connecting with other people, although this certainly has strong wellbeing benefits. It is also learning to better connect with your own body by understanding and listening out for the signals, so you are able to better understand your own wellbeing needs
  3. Breathe – Most of us take our breath for granted, and let it happen naturally, but if we focus on certain breath patterns that are easy to learn, we can boost our health and wellbeing. As an example, breathing through your nose only boosts your immune system because it produces nitric acid which protects against viruses
  4. Switch off – Switching off from a biological perspective means knowing how to soothe our own nervous system. With a bit of knowledge on how our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work, we can manage our response to stress and actively promote healing in our body
  5. Sleep – Sleep is essential to our wellbeing, and yet many of us struggle to get enough of it. A lack of sleep can increase our risk of getting certain diseases and even shorten our lifespan. There is much we can do to improve the quality and quantity of our sleep, however, when we understand it better, including changes in sleep routines and what we eat when

In summary, wellbeing is a long-term endeavour well worth the investment for both companies and their employees and needs to be subject to a partnership approach. Long-term wellbeing requires commitment – from the organisation to provide the vision, the strategy, the processes, the resources and the daily support; and from its employees to embrace new habits that boost their own levels of wellbeing.

For more information on the five habits of wellbeing featured in this article, and how to make them available to the employees in your organisation, please contact Katia Major on [email protected]

For more information on the ‘Build, Buzz, Bake’ framework and how to use it to build a lasting wellbeing movement in your organisation, please contact [email protected]. You can also read about it in her book – People Power: Transform your business in the era of safety and wellbeing: Amazon.co.uk: Hewitt, Karen J.: 9781784529529: Books

i Pfeffer, J. (2018) Dying for a Paycheck, New York, Harper Collins.
ii Bersin, J. (2021) HR Predictions for 2021 Report, Josh Bersin Academy.
iii CIPD (2021) Health and wellbeing at work 2021: Survey report, London, Chartered Institute of

Personnel and Development.