by Adam Woodhall — Workplace wellbeing is rapidly moving up the agenda of business, government and civic society. It is now seen as not only the right thing to do, but it also has a compelling economic imperative.
Wellbeing is a broad concept that includes physical and mental health, and the social/relationship aspects of the work environment. It ranges from dealing with challenging mental health issues to supporting those who are already flourishing to continue that way.
It is clear there are issues with wellbeing in the workplace that need to be addressed. For example, sedentary workplaces are leading to the observation that "sitting is the new smoking," and “presenteeism”—attending work while sick—is decreasing productivity and happiness levels, and creating increasing levels of sick leave, both from mental and physical issues.
There is plenty of proof of the damage to society and business of poor wellbeing. Recent research by PwC demonstrates that UK workers have an average of nine days a year off from their jobs due to sickness (four times more than some other comparable countries), costing businesses £29bn a year.
Further, there is increasing evidence of the benefits to organisations of good wellbeing. Research by London Business School demonstrates that companies with high levels of wellbeing outperformed the stock market by 2% to 3% per year over a 25-year period.
Additional evidence comes from the employee research consultancy Great Place to Work who surveyed employees across a range of businesses. There were many interesting findings; one highlight was that in answer to the question "People look forward to coming to work here", the top 10 'high-trust' employers had 96% of staff agree. The bottom 10 'low-trust' employers had 32% of staff agree. It doesn't take an expert to understand that this chasm between top and bottom strongly influences why ‘good’ employers outperform on the stock market.
The commitment to improving wellbeing comes from the highest places in the UK government. Prime Minister David Cameron recently launched commitments to put mental and physical health provisions on an equal footing, and investing an extra £1 billion into the National Health Service to support this effort.
Cameron said on the launch of this campaign: "As a country, we need to be far more mature about this [mental health]. Less hushed tones, less whispering, more frank and open discussion." There is a clear driver behind this initiative with mental illness being the leading cause of sickness absence, registering a dramatic increase from 11.8 million days in 2010 to 15.2 in 2013.
This evidence is not getting through to everybody, though, as demonstrated by a poll of 250 HR Directors in August 2015 which found less than half consider employee wellbeing to be an employer issue.
When one thinks of facilities management, one doesn't ordinarily consider them to be innovators, pushing the wellbeing boundaries. Enjoy-Work property management, who run the Chiswick Park office estate in west London aren't an ordinary company though. They start with the premise that their role is to serve their 'guests' (as they call the employees who work on the site).
They passionately believe that if people enjoy work, they will be more productive, thus benefiting the 'guest' companies and community. A small sample of the activities and benefits they offer guests includes guitars available to borrow in every reception, origami evening classes and zip wires between buildings to encourage people to leave their desk at lunchtime!
It is not co-incidental that Enjoy-Work is delivering these excellent employee benefits. The Chiswick Park concept was initiated by architect Lord Richard Rogers in 2001 to create a physical space which promotes the wellness of employees. I visited Chiswick Park on an early summer’s day and was highly impressed with how the buildings are arranged around a pedestrianised area, with landscaped gardens, a lake and beautiful waterfall as the centrepiece. They could have built out more office space but with evidence demonstrating that wellbeing, morale and productivity are improved with access to green space, employees were considered first.
During my visit I experienced the launch of their summertime programme and was greeted by 12-foot-high cricketers, a steel drum band and a lizard petting stand. As Gavin Bain, Head of Brand, said, "The summer events are designed to supercharge the lunch hour and boost employee happiness and productivity. At Enjoy-Work we established a tangible link between a great working environment and commercial success for tenants including Starbucks, PepsiCo, Paramount and Discovery."
One of the new driving forces behind wellbeing in the UK is Minds @ Work. This movement began in August 2015 with a dozen people gathered for a dinner and has now already grown to over 200 members with influence at the highest levels.
I interviewed the instigator of this movement, Geoff McDonald, an ex-Vice President of HR in Unilever, and he told me, "Our aim is help to create emotionally and mentally healthy workplaces, where people who are suffering from a mental illness can put their hands up and get support. We also encourage preventative action, where people can thrive."
The movement is an opportunity for individuals from all areas such as psychiatrists, creatives, senior business leaders and digital experts to learn, network and share, many of who are passionate due to their own personal mental health journey. Minds @ Work is starting to gain traction by, for example, convening meetings with HR directors of large corporates.
Geoff explained an impressive recent success: "I was at an event where David Cameron was speaking about life chances. At the end of the speech I made a point that there were few business leaders fronting campaigns and asked how could a meeting happen with CEOs? Cameron replied that he would personally chair the meeting, and less than a month later, there was a meeting with 20 FTSE 100 companies represented including CEOs from Royal Mail, BT and Barclays, where the Prime Minister urged a change of culture regarding mental health in the workplace”.
It’s clear from the evidence and these examples that wellbeing is rightfully climbing the agenda of business and society, with companies and government taking positive action.
NOTE You can see Geoff McDonald in a video with David Cameron and business leaders (McDonald is the guy on the right hand side of the table, opposite Cameron, next to the woman who speaks, with his glasses perched on his head):