Duncan Brown: What should employee wellbeing look like in 2020?

Duncan Brown

Workplace wellbeing has apparently rocketed to the top of every benefits professional’s agenda for 2020. The latest Benefit trends survey, published in October 2019 by Willis Towers Watson, for example, found staff wellbeing at the top of the benefits league table, with 76% of employers planning to incorporate it into their strategies.

But underneath all of the employer promises and provider sales pitches, what is the reality in terms of actual actions? Even more crucially, where are the improved health and wellbeing outcomes?

In Willis Towers Watson’s survey, employer initiatives were found to concentrate on addressing employee physical wellbeing, and 54% of employers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) displayed a traditional health and safety focus. Actions on mental health are rising up the agenda, but only 32% are acting, for example, to support employees’ financial wellbeing, despite this being a key contributor to the UK’s rising levels of stress-related absence and mental ill-health.

As Business in the Community (BITC) found in its September 2019 Mental health at work report, two in five employees reported experiencing poor mental health symptoms related to work in the last year, but 41% of employees experiencing a problem reported that there had been no resulting changes made or actions taken in the workplace.

In December 2019 we learned, for example, that more than 1,000 prison officers had taken stress-related absence over the year, while the Health and Social Care Select Committee 2018 report into the nursing workforce found that work pressures were leading to increased levels of sickness and absence related to stress, and nurses were leaving the profession as a result. In this context, the wellbeing programmes implemented by some employers might be better described as ‘well-washing’.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) makes its living from researching and advising on the efficacy of specific HR, employment and health initiatives; our findings, unfortunately, are rarely positive. Many employers do not bother to assess the effectiveness of specific wellbeing initiatives at all, and our studies into some of the most popular highlight the need to tailor them to the specific workforce and setting, rather than just copy what every other employer is doing.

Take the current fashion for mental health first aiders, and the government’s £15 million investment to get up to one million people trained. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that, while mental health first aid training raises awareness, there is no evidence that it has resulted in sustained actions in those trained, or that it has improved the overall management of mental ill-health.

In an article written in August 2019, my colleagues Stephen Bevan and Sally Wilson concluded that: “Some voices, including our own, are becoming increasingly concerned that, in the understandable rush to find solutions, too many eggs may be being put into the mental health first aid ‘basket’, to the exclusion of other approaches which do just as good a job and which might have more flexibility in meeting the needs of a range of working environments.”

Beyond these ‘sticking plaster programmes’, too few organisations are addressing the underlying causes: work intensification, poor job design and bad line management.

While much of the commentary on Mathew Taylor’s July 2017 Good work review focused on the resulting legislative programme, Taylor points out in the report: “While having employment is itself vital to people’s health and wellbeing, the quality of people’s work is also a major factor in helping people to stay healthy and happy, something which benefits them and serves the wider public interest.”

So, our hopes for workplace wellbeing programmes in 2020 are as follows: first, become more widespread and comprehensive; second, delve deeper into addressing real causation in the nature and management of work; and third, become more evidence-based.

Dr Duncan Brown is head of HR consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

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