The benefits of workplace wellbeing programmes have been well-established: improved employee engagement, retention, enhanced productivity and general health and wellbeing, among others. Now most companies of all sizes, from small start-ups to large corporations, employ some form of wellness strategy.
Not all workplace wellbeing programmes are created equal, however. And with the nature of work fundamentally changed as the country eases out of lockdown, well-trodden wellness programmes may require a rethink.
According to Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean, UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, the most important dimension of workplace wellbeing initiatives is authenticity.
“It must be part of a genuine push for consistency with other work practices. Organisations that talk the language of workplace wellbeing, yet rely on an underlying culture of long hours and reactive management decisions, will ultimately be experienced as frustrating and hypocritical,” she says.
Houlihan sees some workplace wellbeing programmes as being fundamentally incomplete and says a much more holistic approach is needed.
“There can tend to be an emphasis on fitness and physical health to the cost of other aspects of lived experience – financial wellbeing, social activities, family and carer responsibilities etc.”
Workplace wellbeing programmes have become more common in organisations of all sizes and all industries, says Cathal Divilly, ceo of Great Place to Work Ireland.
“A common trend we would see is that the organisations, whether big or smaller in size, that have a commitment to improving their people and culture are usually more progressive when it comes to implementing a wellbeing strategy. Without trust in the culture to begin with, wellbeing strategies are not effective,” he points out.
Heightened awareness and openness around mental health means this is now a key tenet of such programmes, adds Divilly. He notes, however, that such programmes can vary widely in terms of what they encompass.
“They will vary, and they should vary, depending on the needs and circumstances of your employee population. Most programmes will offer a mix of practices in areas like physical, financial and mental wellbeing,” he says.
Divilly believes that for any wellness programme to have widespread employee buy-in and participation, it must be part of a strategic focus on wellbeing, as opposed to merely a tactical approach. He also points out that organisations should take care to shape programmes based on the requirements of their staff.
“Building a successful programme means understanding the demographic make-up of your employee population – how many single people do we have? How many parents? Who has caring responsibility?” he says, adding that the approach also needs be led and shaped by employees.
“Research suggests that if you want to improve employee engagement with your wellbeing initiatives, or even with their work as a whole, give them the freedom of choice to decide what they want support with and then support them accordingly,” says Dr Robert Kerr, senior lecturer in the department of management, leadership & marketing at Ulster University.
“Letting employees choose where you focus your resources ensures whatever you end up doing is relevant to your workforce.”
Indeed, Kerr says there is a wide body of research to suggest that freedom of choice is critical in ensuring workplace wellbeing programmes are successful; he believes a prescriptive approach is the wrong way to go.
“I know I could improve my physical health – I may even want to – but I might feel it is not your place to tell me, and I might feel a little upset when you do. It’s important for employees to feel that they have a say and choice in the wellbeing initiatives and support provided to them.”
Kerr is involved in Wellhub, a spinout company from Ulster University, which was created to develop a holistic, multi-agency approach to support employee wellbeing. He says the goal is to enable smaller organisations with limited resources access the "abundance" of wellbeing content and support online.
“Wellhub connects employees to a growing wellbeing community and enables them to access the community’s resources and support through one platform, anytime, on any web-enabled device. It also provides the education, support and communication tools for employees to successfully run their own wellbeing activities and book on-site wellbeing services – making them part of the wellbeing community as well,” explains Kerr.
“It empowers employees to make positive changes for themselves and to collaborate in creating opportunities for others.”
Global biopharmaceutical company AbbVie employs more than 700 people at five manufacturing and commercial sites across Ireland. Its country HR director, Samantha Commons, says the organisation’s wellness strategy is based on best practice across industries and was recently awarded the Ibec KeepWell Mark.
Known as AbbVie Vitality, she says the programme is a strategic approach to employee health and wellbeing.
“We believe that it is important to encourage and support behaviours that lead to healthy, engaged and resilient employees, helping to create an environment that fosters innovation and creative thinking.”
The initiative includes programmes, resources and tools that encourage a holistic and employee-focused approach to health; while there is a focus on enhancing employee physical health and the prevention of illness, the programme also seeks to improve mental health and psychosocial well-being, explains Commons. She says that while AbbVie provides organisational support, employees are encouraged to help shape programmes and manage their personal wellbeing.
According to Kerr, the current coronavirus pandemic has seen increased focus on employee wellbeing despite meaningful interventions being more difficult than ever, due to a geographically dispersed workforce.
“The shift that was already occurring towards online interventions, webinars etc, has significantly ramped up during the pandemic.”
As the pandemic took hold, many of AbbVie’s employees continued working on site, but a significant proportion commenced working from home, says Commons. As a result, AbbVie moved its wellness programme fully online, renaming it “Virtual Vitality”.
She says the programme was adjusted to reflect new working environments and the potential impact the countrywide lockdown was having on employee physical and mental wellbeing. Over the course of the virtual campaign, employees enjoyed activities such as mindfulness, desk and floor yoga, cardio classes, desk physio and more.
“Many of the virtual activities were timed to account for different shift patterns, personal preferences and family commitments. Going forward, our wellness-focused activities will continue to reflect different working arrangements and adapt to the changing needs of our employees, both on site and those working from home.”