Happiness at work

If you read nothing else, read this…

• David Cameron raised the issue of employee happiness and wellbeing during a speech in 2010.

• The promotion of control and reward at work and a strengthening of work-life balance are deemed prerequisites for employee wellbeing.

• Happy staff will go that extra mile for their employer and boost its bottom line, but this should not necessarily be the end goal of a wellbeing strategy.

• Austerity creates a greater need for employers to cultivate workplace environments that optimise wellbeing.

Case study: Axa seeks to ensure employee happiness

Insurance firm Axa offers a raft of measures to help cultivate staff wellbeing within its UK division.

Sonia Wolsley-Cooper, human resources director at Axa UK, says: “I think there is a huge responsibility on both parties for wellbeing and happiness. Clearly, organisations have to accept that people spend an awful lot of time at work, so they cannot ignore it. A lot of people’s sense of self-worth and interest is driven by workplace wellbeing.”

Axa’s wellbeing programme ranges from traditional workstation assessments to massage, healthy-eating campaigns and Alexander Technique classes. New for 2012 are lunchtime yoga and meditation sessions.

Wolsley-Cooper has also expanded the programme to include work in the local community. “We are trying to be more creative by, for example, encouraging staff to work with local schools and colleges to provide business skills,” she says.

Musculoskeletal and psychological issues are currently most pressing for Axa UK staff, so the programme focuses on practical remedies, such as more workplace assessments and campaigns to highlight issues, encouraging staff to seek help.

Case study: Boots targets feel-good factor

A key part of Boots UK’s business strategy is to create a good place to work. Stephen Lehane, HR director at Boots UK, says: “Our purpose is to champion everyone’s right to feel good, which we take seriously, not just for our customers, but also our colleagues.”

Boots’ annual Great place to work survey, first introduced in 2005, is used to measure staff happiness. It quizzes employees about their job and their manager, as well as about customers. It also measures employee engagement and invites written feedback from staff about changes they would make to improve their workplace experience.

In 2011, over 95% of employees took part in the survey. The results were sent to all Boots store managers, who used them to review how their teams feel and identify the role they can play in boosting happiness.

Employee engagement is achieved through e-learning and internal recognition awards. Lehane says Boots’ sickness and absence rates are better than average across the retail sector, thanks to its success in engaging employees.

Employers are recognising the value of staff wellbeing and are using perks to help achieve it, says Clare Bettelley

With unemployment rates high and the cost of living out of kilter with the average income, should employees simply shut up, get on with their job and be grateful?

In fact, a new generation of employers believe it is their social and moral obligation to optimise employee happiness, and consider it their duty to help deliver this through the employee benefits they offer.

BT, Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) are cases in point, working hard to provide working conditions that optimise employee health. GSK’s mission statement includes the objective ‘to help people do more, feel better and live longer’, which underpins its staff health and wellbeing strategy. This has included a resilience programme, which has helped more than 33,000 staff in 55 countries identify and take action on work pressures, such as lack of workplace flexibility and accountability, since its inception in 2003.

Happiness tends to be thought of in terms of an individual’s psychological state of mind. However, deemed too abstract a concept for UK employers to focus on, happiness has been repackaged as wellbeing. This is now an umbrella term covering employees’ health and lifestyles, including a range of topics that may affect workers’ performance, including exercise and sleep patterns.

Employers may traditionally have considered employee wellbeing as a means to an end: productivity. Accordingly, wellbeing has usually been addressed reactively in the context of absenteeism and high staff turnover – two major causes of productivity decline.

David Cameron’s pledge

Prime minister David Cameron thrust the subject of employee wellbeing into the public arena while leader of the Conservative party in 2010, declaring his aim to create “a new economic dynamism” across the UK. In a speech announcing his pledge, Cameron said: “If your goal in politics is to help make a better life for people, which mine is, and if you know, both in your gut and from a huge body of evidence, that prosperity alone cannot deliver a better life, then you have got to take practical steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of life as well as economic growth, and that is what we are trying to do.”

Cameron’s speech raised a number of issues, not least how happiness can be defined. It raised the question of who is responsible for such abstract aspirations, and what role employers are expected to play. It also sparked debate about whether it is social conditions, working conditions or work itself that is central to staff wellbeing.
Professor Philip Booth, editorial and programme director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, is in no doubt. “Wellbeing is about having a job in the first place,” he says.

Cameron’s speech followed a move by the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, to identify health inequalities in England. In 2008, he commissioned a report, Fair society, healthy lives: The Marmot review, published in February 2010, and cited five proposals that the task group behind the paper deemed prerequisites to employee wellbeing. These included the promotion of control and reward at work, the reintegration of sick, disabled and unemployed people, and a strengthening of the work-life balance.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), believes employee wellbeing is less about happiness than about engagement. “People can be happy at work but not productive,” he says. “There needs to be a balance between job satisfaction and how staff are being managed and led, and also how they are meeting an organisation’s objectives. Engagement is the extent to which staff are willing to go that extra mile for the employer.”

Oliver Gray, managing director of wellbeing service provider EnergiseYou, agrees there is a strong link between happy, engaged employees and performance. “If people are happy, they stay with you, go that extra mile for the business, and are more creative and higher performing,” he says. “Forward-thinking employers recognise the snowball effect of ensuring staff happiness and how it drives productivity.”

Wellbeing workshops on offer

Organisations with which Gray, a former professional tennis player, is currently working include global online auction website Ebay, banking group BNP Paribas and law firm Norton Rose. They offer a range of initiatives to their staff, including wellbeing workshops on topics such as mind management and energy, and 10 secrets to energy and performance at work, as well as wellbeing events, including health exhibitions tailored to the organisation’s needs.

Gray has also been helping corporate catering firm Lexington Catering develop a nutritious gastronomic feast for employers keen to energise staff and boost productivity.

Gray rejects the idea that wellbeing strategies are costly to manage, particularly for small employers. “I always tell them to consider how much recruitment and absenteeism costs them,” he says. “You can get a lot of wellbeing results for the cost of one long-term absentee.”

But a culture shift is needed to achieve meaningful results, which has to start at the top with senior management. “The key is how managers and directors lead by example. If they take their health and wellbeing seriously, this will filter down to staff,” says Gray.

Cynics might dismiss this latest wellbeing movement as little more than stress management repackaged. After all, employees are more willing to talk about being healthy than admitting to being stressed.

But any push to optimise staff commitment to a business, whatever its guise, is good news in the current economic situation. Whether employers agree with the government’s continued efforts to force them to take responsibility for their employees’ health is another matter, however.

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