If you think this is what wellbeing looks like… think again

08 July 2016

Author: Kate Whitehead


If you think this is what wellbeing looks like… think again

A holistic view of employee health delivers impressive returns. So why do so many businesses still think a gym membership and a make-do-and-mend approach is good enough?

Mention the term ‘wellbeing’ to many senior businesspeople and they are likely to point to their corporate gym membership. But the concept of corporate wellbeing – how it is practised, how it is understood and, crucially, how it is accounted for – has moved away from the treadmill and into the middle of the office, as HR professionals know only too well. Their challenge? To help the rest of the company get up to speed.
 
The key may be to speak the language of the business. If wellbeing – the concept that employee health should be holistically and proactively managed, rather than simply reacted to when absence occurs – is seen purely as a cost, it is easy to de-invest or deprioritise it when times get tough.
 
But it’s not a one-way street, and the evidence is there to prove it. A recent report from the Australian government’s Comcare arm referenced global research suggesting that when employee health and wellness is managed well, the proportion of engaged staff in the average organisation increases from 7 per cent to 55 per cent, while self-reported creativity and innovation reaches 72 per cent as opposed to 20 per cent.
 
When it comes to productivity, a meta-evaluation from the US-based Chapman Institute found that a health promotion programme of average effectiveness could decrease employee sickness absence by 25.3 per cent.
 
These are significant enough figures to impress any CEO (and, in particular, their CFO). And yet, businesses haven’t done the maths: 2015 research from consultancy Willis Towers Watson found that only 26 per cent of Asia-Pacific employers felt staff wellbeing was one of their key business objectives.
 
Chay Yue Wah, associate professor specialising in wellbeing at UniSIM College at SIM University in Singapore, is one man on a mission to change this state of affairs. “When a company invests in a wellness programme, it also enjoys better visibility, corporate social responsibility status and good public relations,” he says. “Programmes should be seen not just as a form of organisational coping, but as an integral part of people development.”
 
But Chay also points to one of the key misconceptions about wellbeing, and one of the reasons Asian organisations in particular still tackle it in a less-than-satisfactory manner. By focusing largely or exclusively on physical health, we are only acting on a fraction of the issues that can keep the average employee from working at their best. And we also ignore the irrefutable links between physical and mental wellbeing: if someone is stressed, depressed or overworked, they are more susceptible to physical ailments, as well as being less likely to seek professional advice. The result is a toxic cocktail of underlying causes that have led to sickness absence increasing year on year even as our scientific understanding of wellbeing has grown exponentially.
 
The number of people suffering anxiety and depression each year rocketed from 461 million in 1990 to 615 million in 2013, costing the global economy around $1 trillion annually. Asia is shouldering more than its fair share of work-related mental health conditions because of the prevailing long-hours culture: at 2,380 hours per year, the average Singaporean works longer than any other country in the world, and Hong Kong is not far behind.
 
We need only look to the UK to see where this could lead. The phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’ – staff turning up to work while unwell because they are unwilling to use sick leave – is now an epidemic. Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD chair and one of the world’s most respected experts on wellbeing at work, says the cost of presenteeism to the UK economy is now twice that of genuine absenteeism. Almost a third of workers persistently turn up to work while in some sense ‘ill’, and just 35 per cent are habitually both healthy and present.
 
There is no research to support an ongoing belief among some senior managers that working longer hours makes people more productive, says Cooper: “If you consistently work long hours, you will get ill.”
 
The toll may rise even further in the UK with growing evidence of what Cooper has termed ‘leaveism’ – staff using holiday to catch up on work they are unable to complete during their contracted hours. “Our research found that 76 per cent of employees who have practised leaveism have done so to avoid being labelled as ‘poor performers’ or ‘unable to cope’ with their workload,” he says. “This may lead to sickness absence going underreported by individuals, and distorting both the incidence of sickness in the workplace and the organisation’s ability to understand and manage employee wellbeing.”
 
What these figures point to, more broadly, is that culture is paramount in defining whether people overwork, whether they feel able to report, act on and discuss illness, and whether their employer is willing to support them back to health.
 
David Li, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management, says it is imperative for employers that want to tackle wellbeing to look at the nature of work itself and the environment it’s conducted in. “If people are working long hours, look at the workload and workflow. There might be ways of improving the work processes to reduce the hours. And look at the relationship between staff. Management needs to have an openness and willingness to listen,” he says.
 
Li suggests small changes that allow staff a little flexibility over their work hours, from the introduction of a 15-minute coffee break to the option to take a shorter lunch break and leave earlier. More profoundly, there are interventions that can truly transform individuals’ ability to cope with stress, from employee assistance programmes and support groups to mentoring and coaching.
 
The take-up of such schemes might be one reason the US – where a long-hours culture is also frequently in evidence – has fewer issues with wellbeing. Half of employers there have a concerted wellbeing programme of some kind, from screening activities to identify health risks to nutrition and dietary advice, and return on investment has been estimated at $1.50 for every dollar outlay, according to a recent RAND Employer Survey.
 
By contrast, only a third of Asia-Pacific organisations have a health strategy. Chay says this is because many do not understand the imperative to incentivise employees to consider their wellbeing.
 
At the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the country’s oldest institutions, it is a message that has been heard loud and clear. Founded in 1884, and now boasting 5,500 full-time and 20,000 part-time staff, the company has had a corporate wellness programme since 1999. It’s commonplace to see employees wearing Fitbits – they’re actively encouraged to do so – and there are prizes for those who exercise most regularly. The organisation’s ethos is to promote health in its most holistic sense.
 
The club holds more than 70 seminars a year and more than 3,000 employees join its various health schemes. Christina Chan, head of HR operations, says it’s an integral part of its talent management philosophy. “You have to have happy employees to have happy customers. Highly engaged staff go the extra mile to help you achieve your business objectives, in particular customer satisfaction,” she says.
 
Making a personal connection is also important. Cooper says support for individuals shouldn’t be nameless and faceless: “HR must make an emotional, personal connection with the organisation when it comes to wellbeing, and that means identifying ambitious goals that go beyond return on investment.”
 
Tracy Hui, associate director of the BCom Human Resources Management programme at Hong Kong Baptist University, says the support of senior management goes a long way in guaranteeing the success of wellness programmes, alongside a worldview that takes in both the physical and the psychological. She would like to see senior executives speak openly about issues such as stress, but believes this is still some way off.
 
“There is still a shame in admitting [to having mental health problems]; it’s a sign of weakness. Chinese leaders [in particular] will always show that they are competent and capable – this is the side they want to present to employees,” says Hui.
 
Chay agrees that talking about mental illness reduces the stigma. “When leaders share their experiences of stress, employees can feel they have a champion who understands what they are up against and can therefore take on the challenge,” he says.
 
But the broader issue is culture, and the matter of what is rewarded at work. If overwork and a refusal to acknowledge stress are prevalent, it will be hard to tackle wellbeing matters as they arise, or to combat underlying problems. Hui says that, traditionally, corporate culture has rewarded those who are committed to their jobs and consistently accountable, fostering an unspoken rule in many offices that staff cannot leave before their boss. Junior employees will sit at their desks unproductively until the boss has gone home for the day.
 
But that is changing – and it’s the shifting mindset among millennials that may force businesses to address wellbeing more holistically. “The new generation tends not to follow this informal culture. I see they are changing – they see it is useless to stay when they don’t have duties to perform. They see that such a mentality may block or hinder them from spending time relaxing,” says Hui.
 
Working with the University of Hong Kong, non-profit organisation Community Business, founded by Shalini Mahtani, produces an annual report on work-life balance in the city and is known for its work on CSR, diversity and inclusion in Asia. Mahtani says it is the young generation that is pushing work-life balance to the front of corporate agendas: “For them, work is just part of their life. They have a much more integrated life, and wellness is an inherent part of that.”
 
She says that beyond the financial savings to companies from investing in wellness programmes is the opportunity to earn staff loyalty, which is especially critical with millennials. “One of the biggest challenges with gen Y is turnover. They tend to move a lot because they want to see the world and try different things. If you are able to give them things to do – go to the gym, do a course – they are getting their fix of growth. The happier they are, the longer they will stay with you, and what you get with that rejuvenated spirit is creativity,” says Mahtani. As business cases for wellbeing go, it’s certainly hard to argue with.>
 
The rise and rise of fitness wearables
 
Wearable devices might have started life as a fun piece of consumer tech – a way to count the number of steps you take as you pass the gym en route to the café. But in the past 12 months, they have become an invaluable part of corporate wellness programmes as businesses realise they are a great way to get employees focused on fitness.
 
For some, the motivation is to ensure compliance. The Singapore Police Force and Singapore Defence Force were early adopters of the popular fitness tracker Fitbit in 2014. “Now you can be penalised, or even lose your job, in the Singapore Police if you don’t maintain activity levels. The military in Malaysia and Thailand also use it: they’ve come to realise it’s a way to push staff,” says Chay.
 
But other large companies, particularly in financial services, see it as part of ‘nudging’ employees to better all-round health. They can share their step counts or hours of sleep with their employer or health insurance provider, often as a way to receive better terms. Prizes appeal to employees’ competitive tendencies and help foster team spirit. So what’s available, and what do they offer?>
 
1 Fitbit
The hugely popular US brand has a variety of activity wristbands backed by employee dashboards for corporate use. Prices start at $70.
 
2 Jawbone
One of the first and most affordable options. For corporate users, features like Smart Coach are designed to help teams achieve their goals.
 
3 Apple Watch
Launched in 2014, the much-hyped watch incorporates fitness tracking and health-orientated features with other Apple products and services.
 
4 Garmin
Garmin has announced 10 new wearables across running, cycling, golf and 24/7 activity tracking this year. The cheapest option comes in at $100.