I recently signed up to a new wellness initiative at work “Pilates at Your Desk” (who knew that was a thing) and whilst stretching into a “child’s pose” I started thinking about the massive step forward many employers have taken in recent years to promote and implement wellness initiatives at work. However are these initiatives really delivering what’s needed?

Whilst many employers have long since understood the importance of employee well-being, the need to deliver innovative wellbeing initiatives really came into the spotlight during the pandemic as many employers rushed to find solutions to support their employees. Zoom yoga, mindfulness and breathing exercises - there was nothing, it seemed, which couldn't be done online.

Fast forward to now and an employer who delivers on wellbeing remains a high priority for employees. In November 2022, the Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index 2022 found that for 47% of businesses, employee mental health and wellbeing is their number one priority for 2023. Similarly the Economist Impact Report: Building a healthy hybrid workplace 2022 recorded that 59% of workers would consider a job with a new company if it offered better wellbeing benefits than their current employer. Employers stand to benefit too from improved wellbeing in the workplace through improved engagement, business growth, lower staff turnover and increased productivity.

So why then are sickness absence levels so high? This article from People Management states that a significant contributor to the current record level of sick notes being issued by the NHS is the current economic climate and its impact on employees’ mental health. In November 2022, the Bupa Index cited that 89% of the participating business leaders from around the world had experienced symptoms of poor mental health in the previous 12 months listing the rising cost of living and work-life balance as their biggest day to day concerns. Again in 2022, Gallup published its State of the Global Workplace Report, based on global surveys conducted across samples of the adult population, which found that stress had reached an all-time high with 44% reporting they had experienced stress during the previous day.

So whilst promoting wellness and wellbeing is as important as ever, employers may need to consider how times may have changed for their organisations and the impact that has on your wellbeing offer. For example you may have fewer people working from home full-time, you may offer hybrid working and people may never see their line managers in person. It may be that your wellbeing initiatives are no longer delivering the benefits to employee wellbeing that they were originally implemented to achieve? Do you need to review and revisit your wellbeing benefits to ensure they are still delivering for your employees and not falling short? It's also important to think beyond the latest in vogue initiative. Yoga, Pilates and a lunchtime running club may all have their place but it's important to sense-check the basics of what can cause stress - poor line management, uncertainty over expectations and workload allocation - and make sure you address those issues alongside offering the green smoothies. 

If you think your wellbeing offer is in need of an overhaul, start by assessing what benefits you currently make available. There may be some which have no obvious application now we have moved out of the pandemic and, if you can, access the statistics, check out which benefits you offer are actually being used – and what isn’t. (A lawyerly note of caution: if you are thinking about removing benefits which are contractual you will need to follow a process to avoid the risk of potential claims.) If possible, engage and consult with the workforce as to what they value and what might be missing from your offer.

In particular you may want to also consider the following points:

Supporting a healthy work-life balance and promoting flexibility where it’s available

Many employers are now able to offer hybrid working arrangements or, where it is not possible to carry out the role from home, offer more flexibility for employees to work compressed hours or  more flexible shift patterns. As the day to day impacts of the pandemic on employee behaviours recedes, the operation of hybrid working models have been an evolving process for many employers which can be unsettling within the workforce. Assuming your policy is now where it needs to be, make sure that employees understand the parameters and how they will be applied. 

Additionally, the government has proposed a series of reforms to flexible working which would make it easier for employees to make flexible working requests. Changes include making the right to request flexible working a day one right, increasing the number of requests an employee can make in a year and reducing the time limit for an employer to respond to a request, so in due course your policy may need to be amended.

Pro-active management of workloads

With more employees working from home for at least part of the working week and/or having increased flexibility in work hours you may need to rethink how you offer supervision and management to make it effective if done remotely. This may mean managers needing to be more pro-active and methodical in managing workloads as well as needing to set clearer, more measurable objectives. As ever, good communication is essential and regular meetings (albeit remote ones) should be set up to discuss workloads and upcoming challenges. Training to help your managers manage teams remotely may also be useful.

Taking steps to manage mental health at work 

  • Mental Health plans

You may wish to consider whether your organisation could benefit from a Mental Health Plan. This would typically encourage and promote good mental health of all staff and an open organisational culture. The plan should outline the employer’s approach to improving and protecting the mental health of all employees, including any awareness events or training, and the support available.

  • Mental Health Champions and First aiders 

Another option to think about is the appointment of Mental Health Champions, often appointed in larger organisations to prioritise mental health and to promote positive change across the workplace. Champions are there to promote awareness, promote positive approaches to good mental health and also to be available as a source of support for employees. Alternatively, some organisations may opt for mental health first aiders, usually people within the workforce who are trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health illnesses and who can effectively guide a colleague towards the right support.

  • Providing additional resources to support staff

With public health services under pressure, employers may also wish to consider introducing employee assistance programmes (which can provide employees with support and practical advice on issues that might be impacting their wellbeing and performance), access to an in-house G.P., independent counselling or an occupational health services in order to provide support to employees and, in the case of occupational health, to suggest adjustments to assist the employee to carry out their role. Last year, Public Health Scotland launched a free online platform, Supporting a mentally healthy workplace, which provides businesses with easy access to a range of resources to help promote and support the mental health of their workforce. In 2019 Public Health England produced a range of toolkits to support employers which can be found  within the guidance, Health matters: health and work (now accessible on the UK Health Security Agency website). This guidance is still There are also self-help resources that employers can promote which can be helpful for employees to manage their own mental health including the NHS Mind Plan, Thrive and Silver Cloud.

An employer’s approach to wellbeing can play a vital role as employers compete to attract and retain talent. Devising a wellbeing offer specific to the needs of your workforce can really set you apart. 

Now, best get back to my Cobra stretch...