Thu 21 Jan 2021
This article originally appeared in Training Journal.
When you think of a ‘successful organisation’, what does it look like? How does it operate day-to-day, and what factors make up that success? From a business perspective, you’re almost certainly thinking of economic output and profit. Efficiency is also a strong contender for inclusion.
How about creativity and innovation? Engaged, motivated employees? Or collaboration and positivity, where staff trust their employer and feel as though their contribution helps a common and meaningful goal?
The phrase ‘workplace wellbeing’ is often dismissed as ‘soft’, or trivial; a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘business imperative’. However, wellbeing – the mental, physical, social and emotional health of employees -- is integral to the vision of organisational success outlined above.
The UK economy has suffered significant damage over the previous months, and with further shocks related to COVID-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period expected, it is likely that the final quarters of 2020/21 will be as rocky as the initial half. These conditions make the ongoing productivity crisis, which has abounded since the 2008 financial crash, more worrisome and pertinent than ever.
Although GDP, hours worked and employment have recovered over the past decade, total output is still lagging with little sign of improvement; indeed, Britain’s productivity growth over the last decade is slower than at any time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago.
The implications are significant and tangible; productivity is necessary for economic and wage growth, and for improved living standards. In November 2019, research by PwC suggested that if UK output were to match that of Germany, the economy would see an injection of £180bn, whilst UK GDP could jump by 4% - or £83bn – if regional productivity disparities were halved.
In seeking to explain these issues, attention often turns to digitalisation or politics. However, there is a rapidly expanding body of literature suggesting that levels of employee engagement and wellbeing can go far in explaining the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’ -- and offers clear steps to tackle the problem.
The Financial Times’ ‘Health at Work’ November 2019 report found that there has been a sustained increase in productivity days lost in the UK over the past six years. In 2014, 2.7 days were lost on average per employee per year due to absence and 20.3 to presenteeism.
Presenteeism has steadily climbed year-on-year, with the 2019 figure resting at three days' absence and 35 days lost to presenteeism.
This same study identified five key health issues which contributed to the trend: 56.6% of workers suffered from work-related stress and 53.8% from two or more musculoskeletal issues, 19.6% of employees were obese, 10% faced 'a lot' of financial worries and 8.5% presented moderate or severe symptoms of depression.
These figures, and the reasons cited for not taking time off, make clear that employee health and good management -- addressing reluctance to take time off when needed and how workloads are apportioned -- are key solutions to addressing lost productivity time.
It is not merely that poor health suppresses productivity, however; studies also demonstrate that happiness and trust can play a vital role in enhancing employee engagement.
Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a lead researcher at Oxford University, stated in October 2019 that ‘there has never been such strong evidence’ for the link between happiness and productivity, following a six-month-long study which found that happy employees are 13% more productive.
Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 339 Gallup studies conducted since the mid-90s found that employee satisfaction, productivity, and firm performance were all positively correlated with wellbeing. Some variation was seen across industries, with consistently significant positive results.
The conversation around productivity and wellbeing has been ongoing for some time, and organisations are beginning to realise what they are set to gain or lose, depending on whether employees’ wellbeing is enhanced or damaged by their experience at work.
As Dame Carol Black, who has pioneered research into health at work for the UK Government, has recently stated, ‘Companies need to understand that they are communities, and the health and wellbeing of their employees are central to organisational success.’
How might companies achieve this? First of all, positive change need not be expensive. Culture is core to enabling employees to look after their health; from ensuring that work-life balance is achievable to communicating that prioritising one’s health is encouraged by the organisation.
Psychological safety and open pathways of communication around issues of wellbeing can make all the difference.
By ensuring that organisational culture is open and supportive, key factors influencing employee presenteeism -- reluctance around disclosure, high workloads and feeling as though the problem either wasn’t bad enough or wasn’t a good enough reason to take time off – can be mitigated against.
Underpinning this should also be a tangible commitment from senior management; requests for flexible working or other adjustments which support wellbeing should be taken seriously, and leaders and managers should be aware that the example they make in prioritising their own wellbeing sets an important precedent.
Finally, managers should be empowered and supported in looking after their staff. Undue bureaucracy should be removed, and managers should be guided and aided in how jobs are designed and workloads apportioned – consistently, workload-related stress is found to be a leading cause of poor wellbeing.
The phrase ‘unprecedented times’ has fast become cliché in recent months, and we would be wise to prepare ourselves for further upheaval. If oncoming storms are to be weathered and if productivity levels are to improve, it is crucial that organisations take the business of wellbeing seriously.
For more information about how to support the wellbeing and resilience of your team, join us on Tuesday, 20th April, for 'D&I for Line Managers', and on Thursday, 6th May, for 'Supporting Mental Health at Work'.
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