Three steps to building a successful employee wellbeing programme

Jenna Phillips

By Jenna Phillips

Employee wellbeing programmes have long been a focus of large global enterprises bent on maximising employee performance and productivity, by providing standardised resources for employees to care for their health and prevent illness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned workplace wellbeing management on its head, highlighting its critical importance in ways that go beyond standard measures of productivity. Remote work, the real risk of long-term debilitating illness at a population level and the associated mental health crises have accompanied a rapid transformation of our working lives. The pandemic has wrought a toll on our work and wellbeing, though the toll has manifested differently across workers: office workers haven’t been in an office setting in over a year, 34.5 per cent of all American workers are frontline and/or essential workers and have been required to work onsite throughout the pandemic, millions have lost employment, and many report ongoing stress and anxiety about the demands being made on their time and productivity.

According to a global report delivered in 2020, 9 of 10 employees reported experiencing some level of anxiety and 7 in 10 employees reported being distracted at work due to the pandemic. Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic are calls for social justice reform, a global climate crisis, growing wealth inequality, and a population that is ever more attuned to our global interconnectedness.

The transformation in work that we’ve experienced over the course of the pandemic means that the focus of workers and employers has shifted. Beyond the data on the health and wellbeing impact of the pandemic, we are also in a highly competitive job market. In the United States, one in four workers have voluntarily left their jobs in 2021 – a phenomenon now known as the “Great Resignation.” Genuine employee wellbeing efforts may be a powerful retention and recruitment tool in a volatile market.

How employers are responding to massive shifts in health needs

As workers are demanding more in terms of their health and wellbeing, employers have taken note of the changing mental and physical health needs of their workers. Employee wellbeing efforts have come into favour in a major way. The new line of thinking recognises that, as employers, it is our responsibility to care for workers and provide the resources they need to thrive. While financial returns still play a role in determining which benefits to provide and how to provide them, the purpose of a wellbeing program appears to have shifted to actual wellbeing, rather than earnings.

We have witnessed this transformation first-hand among our clients and within our own organisation. We have seen what makes a strong personalised programmatic design, versus a set of siloed benefits that are rarely accessed by employees. Seeking to meaningfully improve employee wellbeing requires an innovative strategy that moves beyond the standard human resources insights approach. Major trends in consumer technology and healthcare delivery like personalisation and servitisation have inspired our approach to integrated employee wellbeing, relying heavily on analysing novel data, taking a unified programmatic approach and endeavouring for continuous improvement.

We have identified three key themes that employer leaders are adopting to integrate employee wellbeing:

  1. A data-driven approach to wellbeing. Offering personalised or customised wellbeing programming to employees, based on their specific health requirements, location and job function, then collecting data to understand if the interventions and programming are working.
  2. Moving from data to knowledge to insight. Using the data collected to make meaningful and significant changes to the programming when programs need to be adapted, feeding into a learning system that helps the organisation to learn and improve, creating novel interventions that quickly make a difference.
  3. Creating a climate of transparency and trust. Sharing insights, findings and learnings across the organisation to support others, earn buy-in, and grow the programme, understanding that health and wellness cannot be a siloed function within a company.

A data-driven approach to wellbeing

Particularly among large employers, the diversity of employee health and wellbeing needs can be overwhelming. It goes without saying that an office worker in Norway will have a very different workplace and health experience than a factory worker in Indonesia. Unfortunately, we often see employers providing the same wellbeing experience across all employees with little regard for the diversity of experience and needs among employees.

A comprehensive current state analysis is extremely valuable to understand population-level health risks and requirements, as well as the organisational and local resources that are available to each employee. For example, many front-line workers at one large global consumer goods manufacturing company have little or no access to digital tools, including email, computers, or tablets. Providing a digitised wellbeing program to this population would be fruitless as they could not engage with the program.

We recommend collecting baseline data on all elements of employee health and wellbeing, as well as the resources available before embarking on any new program design or implementation. While this may seem a daunting task, businesses often have more relevant data than they think they do, from worksite records to benefits contracts, even those organisations with no wellbeing program currently in flight can access meaningful and informative data.

A data-driven approach allows employers to pursue the combination of programmatic interventions that are evidence-based and respond to a demonstrated need among the population. While it is tempting to take an off-the-shelf software-as-a-service product and implement it for all employees, it is best to consider a customisable and dynamic solution. To meet this need, we recommend taking an Agile and research-driven approach to create new programmatic offerings.

Agile, an approach taken from software development, emphasises quick, iterative development and implementation cycles, focused on continuous improvement. For example, in one large organization, the current state analysis revealed that chronic pain was a crucial and debilitating health issue among workers in factories in the UK. We pursued a series of short-term pilot interventions of three to six months each, applying evidence-based insights in collaboration with academic research partners. We quickly analysed the data we gathered and adjusted the intervention to meet the demonstrated requirements until we found the right combination of program elements that met the employees’ needs, significantly reducing the prevalence and incidence of chronic pain among workers.

From data to knowledge to insight

A data-driven program can only succeed if it is actively managed, so we recommend that workplace wellbeing escapes the confines of the HR department and embeds with the business. The workforce wellbeing programme will benefit from gathering employee data, and employees will benefit from a robust and evidence-based workforce wellbeing programme. This interdependence is vital to making a data-driven program meaningful and insightful.

For the data-driven approach to succeed, a strong commitment to change management, communication, training, and data privacy and security are required. Employees must have confidence that the data they share is in the interest of better health outcomes for themselves and colleagues.

To make the program insights meaningful and actionable, create engagement opportunities for employees at every level. Data visualisation is one of the most significant advances we have seen in recent years in employee wellbeing. There are many data mapping tools that have become more robust in recent years, particularly as visualisations of the global spread of COVID-19 have become more common. Data visualisation, built on a strong data architecture with appropriate protections in place, can surface unexpected health needs to address.

We have also seen success in organisations that embed wellbeing champions across the business to serve as a resource to employees and business leaders. These “servant leaders” support the implementation of the programme at every level of the business, surfacing new qualitative and quantitative insights, feeding them back into the wellbeing system.

Creating a climate of transparency and trust

Rather than housing the employee wellbeing program solely in HR with limited insight from the rest of the organisation, share wellbeing trends with employees of all levels. This creates a climate of transparency and trust, helps employees understand why certain interventions are being pursued and helps to create a culture of health throughout the organisation. Empowering the workforce to understand how the organisation identifies, scopes and manages interventions through visualisation and cross functional collaboration can yield longer-term, healthier outcomes for all.

The transformation of workplace wellbeing from siloed interventions to a robust data-driven program of physical and mental wellbeing is a major undertaking. As workers demand more from their employers, delivering meaningful insights – and wellbeing – is an important differentiator in a highly competitive job market. We have seen organisations succeed most when they pursue a rigorous combination of data insights, evidence-based intervention, a focus on continuous improvement, effective change management and visualisation to engage employees, as well as serve them better.

About the authors

Jenna Phillips
Jenna Phillips PA healthcare expert Jenna collaborates with stakeholders throughout the healthcare system to design and implement complex strategy initiatives

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