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From downward dog to puppy leave: companies work to keep staff happy

Employee wellbeing is taking centre stage in the office but how healthy is the thinking behind it?

Iconic, which has 14 shared office spaces around Dublin, has an events menu that includes bike classes, yoga in the park, mindful meditation and “lunch and learns” with titles such as ‘Get Emotionally Fit’ and ‘Find Your Way in Work and Life’.

Iconic, which has 14 shared office spaces around Dublin, has an events menu that includes bike classes, yoga in the park, mindful meditation and “lunch and learns” with titles such as ‘Get Emotionally Fit’ and ‘Find Your Way in Work and Life’.


We’ve already had the movies What Women Want and What Men Want. What Workers Want should be next. Spoiler alert – it’s less stress.

Yet the lengths organisations are going to keep staff happy, indeed just to keep them, is increasing.

Among the most recent initiatives to hit the headlines came from beer giant Molson Coors, owner of Ireland’s Franciscan Well. It launched a new policy called Life Leave, as part of a programme entitled Moments that Matter, which allows staff take two weeks extra paid leave annually if they get a new puppy.

Puppies are, of course, for life, not just for a fortnight, but it’s a cuddly move. It’s got a long lead too, covering not just new fur babies but house moves, exam study and wedding preparation days.

Launching the initiative, the company’s HR director Adam Firby said: “We’re really proud of the team culture we’ve created. Many of our employees already work on a flexible basis but we wanted to take this one step further.”

The company employs more than 2,000 people here and in the UK and already offers 31 days’ annual leave as standard. It puts a significant amount of effort into improving workplace wellbeing, winning it a gong from mental-health charity MIND.

“One of our driving principles is to empower our people to come to work as themselves, without feeling pressure to fit a corporate mould or to always keep their personal life away from work,” said Firby.

As with all such programmes, the aim for organisations is to arm themselves in the ongoing war for talent. “We hope we can continue to nurture and attract the best talent in the industry,” he said.

It’s a battle being fought on a number of fronts, many of which come under the banner of employee wellbeing. On the opposing side are the increasingly fast-paced changes experienced in the world of work, led by the generals Lean, Agile and Competitiveness.

Work-related stress is on the rise. A recent study from the ESRI found it doubled here in the five years to 2015. Time pressures, tight deadlines and extended working hours were all cited as causes, alongside feeling underpaid and more obvious factors, such as bullying.

Ibec, which launched the National Workplace Wellbeing Day initiative and KeepWell Mark accreditation, estimates some 11 million days are lost annually through absenteeism, at a cost to the Irish economy of €1.5 billion. Workplace stress accounts for a chunky part of that.


Worse still though is presenteeism, where employees turn up for work when they are really too ill to be there. It is estimated to cost firms seven times more than absenteeism in terms of lost productivity. At least some turn up because they feel under pressure to be there.

Research from Laya Healthcare indicates 82 per cent of Irish employees are suffering increased stress levels which, it says, has a knock-on effect on workplace morale, productivity and recruitment. Its Thrive employee wellbeing programme is part of a global corporate wellness market expected to be worth more than €7 billion by 2025.

This growing focus on employee wellbeing is having an impact on office development too. “In order to attract and indeed retain the best staff in a competitive market such as Ireland, the same queries are popping up such as ‘What can my staff eat here? Are there onsite facilities for fitness? Where can my staff go for a coffee and a meeting out of the office?’” says Paul Byrne, marketing executive of Dublin Airport Central, the new commercial property campus at Dublin Airport.

In response, he can show them the on-site campus swimming pools, gyms, golf driving range, astro football pitches and even a bowling alley. He understands the drivers behind the requests.

“There are so many positive impacts for a company which provides a building space for their employees to work in that creates a feeling of wellness, community and that makes being at work feel a bit more relaxed and less stressed – even if everyone is under pressure,” he says.

“Sometimes, in order for people to do their best work, they simply need to forget about work altogether. Doing a yoga or spinning class in the morning or maybe hitting the gym or pool for a 30-minute workout during the day can really help that person reset their focus and clear their mind for the rest of the day.”

But wellness isn’t just about feeling good, however, it’s about financials.

“At the end of the day, it is all down to productivity. This is why large corporations around the globe are going in this direction. Ultimately, every staff member is an economic unit which a business must invest in. In order for a business to get the best ROI [return on investment] on each economic unit it invests in, they now see the value of improving a building and making the environment as attractive as possible as it will improve productivity, reduce sick leave, reduce absenteeism and ultimately make their bottom line better,” says Byrne.

“The great thing about this is that it is no secret. Employees are more than happy to accept this in return for better conditions – it’s a win all round.”

US tech multinationals

The presence of so many US tech multinationals here has raised the game in terms of work environments. Where they lead, the indigenous sector follows. Iconic, which has 14 shared office spaces around Dublin and hosts many of the landing teams sent by US multinationals, has an events menu that includes bike classes, yoga in the park, mindful meditation and “lunch and learns” with titles such as ‘Get Emotionally Fit’ and ‘Find Your Way in Work and Life’.

Yet the jury is still out on the real value of employee wellness programmes. A study by Dr Zirui Song, a health policy researcher at Harvard Medical School, and Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, tracked nearly 33,000 employees at a large US retail chain.

It found no significant effects on clinical measures of health, healthcare spending and utilisation, or employment outcomes after 18 months. This, the authors conclude, may “temper expectations” about the financial return on investment that wellness programmes can deliver, at least in the short term.

There may be easier wins for employers, that costs less too. Studies show that simply being able to see a potted plant at work boosts creativity and productivity. According to research from the University of Exeter, undertaken in 2014, employees’ productivity jumps 15 per cent when you put a few houseplants into a previously bare environment.

It follows earlier research from Sydney’s University of Technology, which found significant reductions in stress among workers when plants were introduced to their workspace. Specifically, it resulted in a 37 per cent fall in reported tension and anxiety; a 58 per cent drop in depression or dejection; a 44 per cent decrease in anger and hostility; and a 38 per cent reduction in fatigue. Go yucca.

The Human Spaces global study of 7,600 workers from 16 countries concluded office design is so important to workers that one third of respondents say it affects their decision to work somewhere. What most people want is natural light, followed by live indoor plants. They also want a view of the sea, which you might find hard to accommodate. But a potted yucca costs just €15.

The benefits of the humble office plant are something Michael Caffrey of Universal Floral sees on a daily basis. The Dublin company provides plant for hire services across Ireland, the UK and Europe.

“Plants have a huge role to play in creating an attractive work environment. They offer genuinely ‘green’ benefits, acting as a natural air filter, taking in nitrogen and releasing oxygen and collecting dust. Research shows that students in rooms with plants do better in exams than students without them. These kinds of thing really make a difference if you’re working in a room for eight or nine hours a day,” he says.

‘Dynamic workplaces’

Arguably, such touches become even more important in today’s workspaces. As real estate becomes more expensive, the pressure is on organisations to reduce their office footprint. This has given rise to the growth of so-called “dynamic workplaces”, open-plan, office-free and, typically, short on desk space.

If you’re not already in one, you may not know that this often entails staff having not a desk but a locker, a laptop, and a plastic box for paperwork which they trundle around with looking for a free desk.

“It’s about reducing floor space and costs but to do it you have to offer staff something better than a faceless office,” says Trevor Schwer of The Interiors Group, a specialist in corporate fit-out and refurbishment.

That typically means plenty of quiet spaces, breakout rooms, phone booths, as well as everything from prayer rooms to breastfeeding rooms. An attractive canteen, pool tables and table tennis are par for the course.

Most new offices will provide desk space to meet an estimated 80 per cent of the overall staff complement, which takes account of numbers missing due to off-site meetings or illness. “If a company has a big sales team out on the road, it makes sense. It also helps with the clean-desk policy, you’d be amazed what some people accumulate when they consider their desk a home,” Schwer says.

But the modern workplace can also put pressure on workers – not least to get a desk. As one employee put it: “You get a locker for your personal belongings, and after that, it’s first up, best dressed.” There’s a whole new cause for anxiety.

Even the vaunted productivity gains are open to question. Open plan was supposed to boost interaction and break down organisational silos, but a report by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests the benefits don’t outweigh the downside – noise and loss of privacy.

Cynical view

It’s easy to take a cynical view about employee wellbeing as initiatives designed to make workers feel warm and fuzzy but really to make them work harder. In fact, the aims of employers and employees should be aligned – better work and better working lives.

“Some organisations undertake wellbeing initiatives in order to keep people at work longer, but that is not the reason they should be doing it,” says Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland, the HR professionals organisation.

If you are undertaking workplace wellness initiatives, it’s important to assess their impact to see whether it is good for the people and for the organisation, she says. This is because, in practice, some don’t have an impact on either.

It’s important too that such programmes don’t take the focus away from the main workplace stressors – “work overload and lack of tools to do the job properly”, she says. “Often we talk about wellbeing and about physical and mental-health initiatives, but you actually need to look at stress and workload and what causes the problem.”

Stress, presenteeism, which she describes as the “need to be seen to be here”, and mental health are the things that really affect wellbeing.

One of the simplest ways to improve wellbeing may simply be to allow greater flexibility to work from home more. As well as saving on the commute, it can give workers back a sense of control, she says. It’s particularly important for staff working in today’s fast-paced, dynamic, flexible workspaces. “It’s the quid pro quo.”

The volume of work expected and management style is crucial. “If you are expecting people to work long hours and then offering them yoga classes, that only increases their stress because you are giving out two messages. Employees will see through that.”

The vast majority of organisations, 84 per cent according to CIPD’s research, offer employee assistance programmes, while 45 per cent offer mental-health supports and 44 per cent have on-site wellbeing initiatives.

But employee assistance programmes typically only kick in when a problem has already arisen for an employee. “It’s a tool for when something has gone wrong,” says Connaughton. Finding out what might have led to it, and taking action to redress that issue, is worth investing more in.

“Focus on your culture,” she says. What you don’t want is managers who, under pressure themselves, spread it about. It’s why providing training for managers to support and coach staff will be of more value than bringing in a mindfulness guru.

“If you’re not doing the culture piece, you’re not going to get any benefit from your wellbeing initiatives in any case,” says Connaughton.