By Gloria Lombardi

The link between employee health and work performance is often ignored. Some employers still doubt the impact of presenteeism, dismiss the data, and fail to take action on employee wellbeing issues such as mental health at work. It’s vital to understand that people are not machines – they are not 100% task-focused and will not perform at their best all of the time.

Organisations will see a reduction in productivity when employees experience physical, financial, or mental health issues. Those organisations that take steps to maximise their employees’ wellbeing at work, through supporting an active workforce, promoting good nutrition, and enabling positive conversations around mental health, for example, enjoy a competitive advantage.

Simon Andrew, Insight and Engagement Director at Benefex, suggests that organisations should encourage employees to self-regulate with regard to health, through training and educative communications.

Benefex’s latest research report, ‘The ultimate wellbeing guide’, includes up-to-date findings from respected analysts, practical tips for HR and communication practitioners, and guidance to create successful wellbeing strategies.

MARGINALIA spoke with Andrew to explore the employee and productivity ramifications that surround wellbeing at work. In this interview, he stresses the criticality of good education and communication around the physical, mental, and financial aspects of health, highlights the challenges and pitfalls, and encourages using technology to ensure wellbeing tools and services are used to their full potential.

Gloria Lombardi: Healthier, happier employees directly impacts the company’s bottom line. It’s no secret that when we feel good, we’re productive. Is that wholly correct?

Simon Andrew: Organisations have a responsibility to look after their employees, and make sure everyone is happy and well. On top of that, the financial cost of poor wellbeing must be considered. Research shows that mental ill-health costs the UK economy around £99 billion a year. Around 137 million days are lost through sickness and injury in the UK every year. And, over 16 million working people have no savings to speak of. Health is a serious matter for business and for individuals.

We’re at the point where intervention is needed. Businesses need to help and encourage people to look after themselves, to think ahead, and to stay well, positive, and healthy.

GL: Before diving into the solutions, we may need to consider the problem. Can you clarify what employee wellbeing really is?

SA: Holistically, there are three key areas to consider when it comes to employee wellbeing: physical, psychological, and financial.

Most organisations are well-versed in supporting physical wellbeing of their staff, by providing benefits such as private medical insurance, healthy foods in the workplace, and promoting a healthy lifestyle with gym discounts, Cycle-to-Work etc.

Mental health is a little more difficult to tackle, but it feels like it’s a little easier to talk about these days. There are more personal stories about depression and anxiety, and this sharing – along with increased support and treatment options – is helping to break down stigmas.

Financial health can be just as hard to talk about. I think organisations have a duty to provide fair recompense, and to help employees look after their finances so people can cope if unexpected expenses arise or their outgoings radically change. Whatever your circumstances, major life events can be expensive and surprising.

All three areas of wellbeing are tightly linked, and organisations need to address them all. To retain people, we need to support people’s wellbeing – are we truly doing that?

GL: Where should organisations start when it comes to championing employee wellbeing? 

SA: When companies look at their wellbeing strategy, the starting point has to be understanding existing major challenges, so research is key; one-to-ones, exit interviews, surveys – these all flag up warning signs of what employees are dealing with.

A loss of sense of humour, for example, can be an early warning sign of burn-out. Company culture is crucial here; it must. We have a tool available – Communications Manager – which can help HR to write and schedule these educative communications, so that they’re sent at the times when they’ll really help employees the most.

Many organisations have adopted employee assistance programmes (EAPs), or they’ve trained champions who can be called when stressed or distressed. But the underlying problems around people’s behaviours and understanding still need addressing. To achieve a genuine improvement in wellbeing, a programme needs to create change within the organisations, and in employee behaviour.

To that end, a wellness strategy should be composed of three elements: education (80%), preventative tools (15%), and supportive tools (5%).

GL: What sort of education can organisations provide?

SA: Organisations train staff on subjects like data protection – providing courses and regular information – emphasising the impact of poor understanding. I would argue that employee wellbeing should be treated on the same level.

People have so much choice when it comes to the information they take in, so education has to be engaging and relevant to have any real impact. Easy access is also key, so having a suite of learning tools available within your reward and benefits platform is potentially the most effective way of educating employees. Financial education tools are readily available in this way; services like Nudge which deliver personalised information at key times, as well as platforms like MoneyWorks – which display our spending habits – increase our awareness of our own status and enable us to make healthier financial choices.

Content pages, including videos and testimonials, can help employees educate themselves further on maintaining good mental and physical wellbeing. Libraries of wellbeing content, readily available through a mobile-first platform, and promoted through personalised, well-timed communications, are seeing increased usage, showing that employees want – not just need – to take care of their own health.

GL: How can technology help with the prevention, or support, of poor wellbeing?

SA: There are benefits and services available which can encourage good wellbeing, but the importance is in delivering these in the right way so that employees actually use them. Physical wellbeing benefits are ubiquitous; gym memberships, cycle-to-work, healthcare cash plans – most employers offer these, but do employees engage with them? If you can read about, and sign up to these benefits through your phone, you’re more likely to use them, and more likely to keep your physical health in check. The same goes for mindfulness platforms like Headspace. Plus, the introduction of 24/7 digital GPs, available on the same platform, reduces the stress of seeking medical advice when needed.

Your recognition scheme can also play a huge part in preventing and supporting wellbeing. There are huge psychological benefits to being recognised by your managers and peers at work. Being acknowledged for our work has been shown to reduce feelings of depression, make us sleep better, and improve our energy. We’ve recently released a recognition app which lets you thank a colleague quickly and easily. You can record a short video, write a few words, even create a meme or send a GIF. The whole process takes seconds. We’re hoping this personal peer-to-peer recognition will encourage more gratitude, better connections, and will positively influence the important areas of culture and wellbeing.

I know this all sounds costly, but intervening and supporting employee wellbeing yields results. In our research, we found that spending £1 on health promotion tools and services saves between £1.50 and £9 through reduced absenteeism, temporary staff, and lost productivity through presenteeism.

It’s great to educate the workforce of today, but companies should not forget the workforce of (literally) tomorrow. Wellbeing awareness training, and an introduction to these tools, needs to be part of the induction. Every new starter should understand that this organisation cares about wellbeing, and know how to self-regulate, receive support, and offer it where they can.


Picture of woman with mobile phone courtesy of Tina Downham Photography