How to build a wellbeing strategy that really works

By Bita Taghavi-Stevens

When it comes to buzzwords, it doesn’t get more buzzy than ‘wellbeing’. But what do we really mean when we talk about employee wellbeing? 

It used to look like ping pong tables, lunchtime yoga, and as much free fruit as you could eat – the preserve of Silicon Valley and tech startups. It was a vibe, a mood, a vague concept of something ‘nice’.

Fast-forward to 2022 and there’s nothing vague about employee wellbeing. 

While the shift was already underway, Covid fuelled a wellness revolution, highlighting the need for businesses to view employee wellbeing for what it is: a serious business function. 

From attraction, retention, and productivity, to reducing absenteeism, business continuity and corporate reputation, investing in wellbeing is one of the best ways to grow and future-proof your business. According to Deloitte, businesses can expect to see a £5 return for every £1 they spend.

So why do most wellbeing initiatives fail to meet their full potential? 

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest challenges around employee wellbeing – and the solutions that will help you build a strategy that benefits your people and your business.

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The bigger picture

 

It’s always a good idea to clarify why you’re doing something. Developing a wellbeing strategy ‘because everyone else is’ is not the best plan. Like any other business strategy, it needs to be solutions-driven.

You need clear objectives – you need a ‘why’. Even if it seems obvious, understanding all the goals and benefits of having a wellbeing program will keep you motivated and allow you to measure its efficacy. And crucially, it will help you get buy-in from key people.

Wellbeing initiatives might sound light and fluffy but when you consider that 38% of Gen Z say health and wellbeing is their number one factor for choosing where they work, it’s easy to see the value in defining your goals. 

Challenge #1 What’s your problem?

We all know that employee wellbeing is good for business – but why is it good for your business, specifically? What current challenges and obstacles could it help you overcome? How will it help you achieve growth and transformation? 

In order to develop a wellbeing initiative that’s relevant, you need to ascertain which areas of your business are causing people stress. 

Naturally there are other areas of wellbeing that may have a less direct connection to your workplace, such as financial or physical health problems. But it’s a good idea to begin with the area you have the most influence over: job and workplace environment.

Do they have a lack of resources to do their job? Have they had the right onboarding and on-the-job training? Is there a lack of management support – or not enough autonomy? Is there a perceived lack of fairness in the workplace? Do they feel recognised and rewarded for their effort?

Your sector and the type of work your employees do will have a big impact on the potential stresses and challenges. It’s up to you to pinpoint the key factors that could be affecting your employees’ emotional wellbeing and mental health. 

The solution

If you want to know what your employees find stressful or how you could improve your workplace wellbeing, just ask them. The easiest way to do this is with a survey. It might be a good idea to keep it anonymous so that employees feel free to say what they really think.

Surveys work best when they’re targeted and based on your current information. You should already have some idea of where problems may lie, so focus on those areas. This will help you develop both the reactive and proactive sides of your strategy.

For example, if you know one particular part of your business is understaffed and struggling to recruit, the chances are that employees are feeling extra pressure or having to deal with a bigger workload. So hone in on this. Give them a platform to tell you what they’re experiencing – and what might help to alleviate the problem.

Finding out where the pain points and triggers are serves two clear purposes. It highlights where the major issues are, and it starts the conversation. 

Just the act of creating a survey for your employees demonstrates that you’re invested in their wellbeing. And while you may not be able to magically fix all of their stressors, you’ll get a holistic view of how employees feel about working at your company.

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Challenge #2 Reactive vs proactive

This is one of the biggest challenges businesses face. Wellbeing strategies tend to be weighted towards reactive tactics, rather than proactive measures. Fundamentally, it’s the difference between prevention and cure – and it’s easy to see why most businesses choose the latter.

Reactive measures provide a template or system for how to proceed when there’s been an incident or a specific issue. 

For example, offering counselling services for someone suffering with their mental health, or facilitating sick leave. You’re effectively firefighting – trying to undo something that’s already happened. 

These types of tactics certainly have a role to play but they shouldn’t be the main – or only – component of your wellbeing strategy.

To make wellbeing work for individuals and your business, your long-term strategy should be proactive; mitigating the risk of fire in the first place, so to speak. This is how you address root causes and drive real change.

Being proactive is about giving people the tools to build resilience, recognise their stressors, and value their own wellbeing. It’s about giving managers the training they need to support and engage with employees. It’s about cultural change and organisational commitment to prioritising wellbeing. In other words: it’s hard. 

However, it’s worth pursuing. A more proactive wellbeing strategy has the power to flip the narrative: mental health and wellbeing aren’t ‘problems’, they’re a fundamental part of being human. 

The solution

The key to becoming more proactive with wellbeing is to create a coalition of support across your business. You need to build it from the ground up. This will help you create an environment in which people can thrive.

Providing wellbeing training for managers is a great place to start. As well as reactive measures, they’ll also learn how to spot red flags, signpost additional support, and navigate sensitive conversations.

Another key factor is investing in emotional literacy for all employees. Just having ongoing, open dialogue around emotional wellbeing and mental health can help you start to cultivate a culture of recognition and empathy. It will also work towards destigmatising mental health.

For example, let’s say an employee has noticed that a colleague seems a bit withdrawn or isn’t chatting as much as usual. If your workplace environment hasn’t actively encouraged awareness and openness, they’re unlikely to flag it up – they may not even recognise it as a sign that something’s wrong.

But in a setting where openness and awareness around mental health is facilitated, the outcome is likely to be very different. They might approach their colleague and ask them how they are, or they might flag their concerns with a manager or designated mental health lead. 

It’s easy to see how this type of proactive approach produces a ripple effect of empathy and action. By giving everyone the tools to recognise and talk about emotional wellbeing, you create a continuum of proactive care.

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Challenge #3 Measuring success

How do you measure the efficacy of your wellbeing program? There’s a lot to think about when it comes to evaluating success. Which is perhaps why the majority of businesses don’t bother at all.

Last year, a study by Aon found that only 9% of UK employers measure the ROI of their wellbeing initiatives. This is a huge problem. But it’s not the only one.

Another challenge is how and what you measure. If you’re using the wrong metrics, you’ll be chasing numbers that don’t mean anything. For example, if your aim is to attract talent, it makes no sense to measure productivity. Your KPI targets need to align with your objectives.

Without proper metrics in place you won’t know what’s working and what isn’t. The knock-on effect of this is that you won’t be able to tailor your plan to meet the needs of your employees. 

It’s a sure-fire way to waste money and create employee disengagement. It will also make it harder to justify any future investment in wellbeing.

The solution

Tracking and quantifying wellbeing might seem like a ‘how long’s a piece of string’ challenge, but it’s easier than you think. By breaking it down into methodical steps, you can use simple metrics to gauge how effective your program is over time.

Start with your initial objectives. What are your goals? This needs to be as specific as possible, so steer clear of things like ‘to make our employees feel better’. 

Maybe your aim is to reduce absenteeism or to improve retention? Whatever your business goals are, you’ll also need to track participation. If your employees aren’t engaging in the first place, your wellbeing plan is unlikely to be successful.

Once you know what you want to measure, you need to select an appropriate KPI. So if you want to decrease the number of absences, measure absences over a designated period of time. You can then use this data to calculate your ROI. 

In addition to this hard data, you’ll also need some softer metrics.

Use surveys to ask employees what they think of the current initiatives. Do they know what support is available to them? Do they find it useful? Is it reducing their stress? Has it helped to create a more collaborative work environment? How could you improve things? 

This combination of targeted KPIs and soft metrics should give you a comprehensive picture of participation, perception, and ROI; you’ll be able to see where things are working and which areas need adjusting.

 

When you consider that depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans aged 15-44, no business can say wellbeing isn’t their problem. But in order for wellbeing initiatives to make a difference to your employees and your business, strategy is crucial. By defining your goals, building a culture of proactive care, and implementing the right metrics, you can develop the kind of wellbeing program that really delivers.

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With special thanks to: