The time has come for health and wellbeing to be treated as a key strategic issue in organisations, says Sir Cary Cooper.
Interest in workforce health has never been more intense with the pandemic catapulting the issue to the top of the public health, business and policy agendas. Indeed the human resources (HR) and occupational health professions have been in the spotlight like never before, advising CEOs and boards about safe working, the health of frontline workers, and the wellbeing of the new army of home workers.
But perhaps more than anything the pandemic has forced employers to think deeply about the ways that investing in workforce health can enhance agility, resilience, resourcefulness and productivity both during the pandemic and beyond.
During any major crisis there are many aspects of business that suffer, but it is people and their mental health who often bear the brunt. Levels of stress, anxiety, insecurity, and instability in employees all increase which – if unmanaged – can result in an unsettled and unproductive workforce. If organisations prioritise the health and wellbeing of their staff then they can not only survive a crisis but come out of it stronger than before.
The impact of the crisis will be felt for decades to come. New ways of living and working have had to be adopted almost overnight, while the scale and pace at which organisations have had to change and adapt is unthinkable.
But what the pandemic has shown once and for all is that the issue of employee wellbeing is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It is absolutely not about ‘mindfulness at lunch’ sessions. Instead, it needs to be a strategic issue for every business and organisation, just like sustainability, diversity or productivity. Indeed, addressing wellbeing properly actually creates long-term sustainability for a business or organisation.
In my view every organisation now needs to have a non-executive board director who has specific responsibility for health and wellbeing, an individual who holds that organisation to account in terms of how they treat, trust and value their workforce.
The key point here is that this individual will be a board member who has responsibility for HR but is not actually the head of HR themselves. The reason being is that in the vast majority of businesses and organisations directors of health and wellbeing do not sit on boards. Therefore you need someone on the board who is looking at this from a far more strategic viewpoint.
In order to do this he or she will need a clearly defined set of metrics, and this is precisely an area of work that myself and colleagues at the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work are currently taking forward.
Some of these metrics will be very subjective such as employee satisfaction, how workers feel they are managed, how they feel about hybrid and flexible working, and whether they are happy with their hours of work. Others will be objective, such as specific physical and mental health metrics, stress-related sickness absence figures, staff turnover, levels of absenteeism, and levels of accidents and injuries.
The end goal here is that the organisations are then able to select the range of metrics that are most relevant to their business. From my own discussions with HR managers and CEOs over many years this is something that they are desperate for, and the time has come to make them real.
"Every organisation now needs to have a non-executive board director who has specific responsibility for health and wellbeing, an individual who holds that organisation to account in terms of how they treat, trust and value their workforce."
When it comes to health and wellbeing, during the pandemic perhaps no group came under more scrutiny than line managers whose capacity to manage the rapid pivoting of working arrangements, while exercising stewardship over the human resources under their care, was tested daily. For these individuals, the responsibility for ensuring that workforce wellbeing and productivity were being protected was intense.
As we come out of COVID-19 this scrutiny will not go away, especially as debate rages about what hybrid and more flexible working will really mean in practice for organisations and how they will deal with it. I believe it will mean HR departments negotiating with each employee about what exactly works for them. But it also needs to be a contract, it has to be what the employer wants as well. For instance there will be days when an employer needs you in the office – but the point is that it won’t have to be every day.
Let’s face it, hybrid and flexible working are here to stay and we are not going back, and the evidence is clear that the vast majority of organisations are now going to work a hybrid model.
In this new world of work we crucially need line managers who can recognise when people are not coping and who have the correct social skills to deal sensitively with them and show genuine empathy. If people aren’t feeling great, are there things you can do to improve that? How do you pick up the cues? How can you really tell in an online call how someone is feeling?
Right now all organisations need to be doing an audit of line managers to find out which need training in this regard. For instance if someone has been recently promoted how do you ensure that there is a parity between their technical and social skills?
Some argue that line managers bear too much of the burden of managing all aspects of employee health and wellbeing. If that is true, then we need to be ensuring that we enhance their capability and enable them to be the most important custodians of the link between health and productivity.
All of these themes are explored in much greater depth in two books I have recently edited. In the first, The Healthy Workforce: Enhancing wellbeing and productivity in the workers of the future, I’ve teamed up with Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies.
And in the second, Managing Workplace Health and Wellbeing during a crisis, co-edited with Ian Hesketh, we explore how several organisations and businesses in the UK specifically responded to the COVID-19 crisis and lessons learnt.
"In this new world of work we crucially need line managers who can recognise when people are not coping and who have the correct social skills to deal sensitively with them and show genuine empathy."
This article was originally published in issue 9 of the AMBS Magazine.