Why Do We Need Effective Workplace Wellbeing Programmes?


The issues of employee wellbeing and absence management have become increasingly important to public policy makers and companies in recent years due to a number of factors, including high costs to business and the state, the increased prevalence of mental health conditions in recent years, and the increase in levels of obesity. It’s estimated that treatments linked to obesity including heart disease, cancer, depression, back pain, diabetes and skin conditions make up 9% of the NHS budget. In addition, an estimated 26 million working days are lost overall to work-related injury and ill health. Work-related stress, anxiety and depression lead to over 10 million of these. Currently in the UK, the average office worker takes 6.5 days of absence. This amounts to 190 million working days for absence and approximately £8.4 billion lost annually.

Yet there is still some way to go in addressing these issues effectively. According to Personnel Today (Jan 2018): "UK productivity – or lack thereof – continues to climb political, business and public-sector agendas. The Office for National Statistics estimated that output per hour worked in the United Kingdom in 2015 was 15.9 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. This is despite the July 2015 publication of a Government plan to increase productivity. But it is puzzling that employee health and wellbeing’s impact on sickness absence and presenteeism is not front-and-centre in discussions about improving productivity".

The Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD) identifies wellbeing at work as a broad “bio-psycho-social construct that includes physical, mental and social health. Well employees are physically and mentally able, willing to contribute in the workplace and likely to be more engaged at work. Wellbeing initiatives are proactive and work to enable employees to achieve their full potential - physical, mental, social, intellectual and spiritual. To be effective, employee wellbeing needs to be part of a regular business dialogue and to be deeply embedded into an organisational culture.”


Making the case for workplace wellbeing initiatives

According to the New Economics Foundation (NEF), evidence shows that people who achieve good standards of wellbeing at work are likely to be more productive, creative, more loyal and provide better customer satisfaction than those with poor levels of wellbeing at work. Improving wellbeing at work involves helping employees to: strengthen their personal resources, flourish and take pride in their roles within the organisational system, function to the best of their abilities (both as individuals and in collaboration with their colleagues) and have a positive overall experience of work.

Tangible examples of ROI for wellbeing at work programmes include:

  • A 2014 report from the British Safety Council describes how one company realised a return of £192,000 on a £16,000 investment to tackle back injuries. The return was a result of reduced sickness absence, better productivity and lowered insurance.
  • A study by Leeds Metropolitan University found that workers who exercised for 30 to 60 minutes at lunchtime reported an average performance boost of 15%. The majority of the survey respondents also reported an improvement in time management skills, better mental performance, the ability to meet deadlines improved, higher energy levels and improved mood.
  • The London School of Economics analysed data from the Royal Mail, where an investment of £45 million into staff wellbeing generated a £225 million return on investment from 2004 to 2007. The study concluded that, were the 13 worst-performing sectors to follow suit, the impact on the UK economy could be £1.45 billion (Marsden and Moriconi, 2010).
  • A case study on physiotherapy provided to John Lewis employees showed that the company saved 41,000 working days through an initiative to provide early physiotherapy intervention on musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Research by the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) in Sheffield discovered a definitive link between wellbeing and productivity through a scheme known as the Business Athlete Energy Programme. This four-week programme focused on improving employee energy levels to boost productivity. It used training principles applied to athletes and adapted them for the workplace. The programme achieved significant improvements, with 80% of participants reporting improved energy levels. It also resulted in an average productivity boost per employee of 20 minutes per day, rising to an hour a day for those seeing the biggest benefits.
  • Case studies highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive show positive returns for workplace stress management initiatives. Energy firm Scottish Power reduced sickness absence by 11% in some departments as a result of stress reduction measures, while multimedia retailer QVC saw a 20% decrease in the average number of employees on long-term absence in a year.
  • Research by the 'What Works Centre for Wellbeing' highlights that companies with more 'proud employees' perform four times better during recessions and have staff with higher reported wellbeing.
  • The evidence of the impact of tackling risk factors such as smoking, physical activity and obesity is clear. A survey of 25,000 health workers found that those who smoked are twice as likely to take time off work, and a study of Transport for London found workers with obesity (BMI>30) take an average of three sick days more annually than those of normal weight (BMI<25), and those with severe obesity (BMI>35) take six days more. There are interventions that are recognised by NICE as effective, but employees are often not supported to access them.
  • Large-scale evidence on the benefits of wellbeing at work interventions is growing; for example in an extensive piece of research by Donald et al., 16,000 employees across 15 different organisations in the UK were studied, covering workplaces in the public and private sectors, including manufacturing plants, a local education authority, a county council, three police forces, three universities, a prison service, and other service providers, spanning a range of occupations, from professional to administrative and manual roles. They found that higher employee productivity was associated with better psychological wellbeing, and they argue that the ‘large sample size and mix of occupations included in the research means the results can be viewed as generalisable to other employee groups'.

How can businesses improve their focus on wellbeing in the workplace?

Many HR professionals struggle to justify investment in the health and wellbeing of staff and, as a result, aren't able to implement an effective wellbeing strategy, even though they understand it's important to business success. In a study by corporate benefits magazine Reward, the majority (88%) of HR/related professionals believe that staff wellbeing is “important or very important” to the overall success of their business – however, just half of them have a wellbeing strategy in place. Justifying return on investment was a major issue (57%). Another barrier was a lack of commitment from senior management (31%).

According to the organisation Future of Work Insights, the following points are key considerations for businesses when developing a workplace wellbeing strategy:

  • Move beyond a narrow focus on physical wellness to encompass all aspects of wellbeing.
  • Promote positive choices and activities that employees find intrinsically
  • motivating to do every day.
  • Engage leaders in cultivating a positive emotional climate and leading by example. 
  • Aim to make wellbeing a part of your culture and an integral driver in business strategy.
  • Set key objectives for your wellbeing benefits.
  • Measuring the effectiveness of your wellbeing benefits is critical; helping you tailor interventions to employee preferences, monitor take-up and demonstrate ROI.
  • The key to ensuring the success of wellbeing benefits is through regular communication that ensures staff not only know about the benefits on offer, but also understand their value.
  • It can be difficult to quantify wellbeing programmes; remember that qualitative data such as feedback can be equally useful.
  • Be patient - some of the benefits gained from wellbeing, such as culture change, may take longer to emerge.

Soul Stretch works with businesses of all sizes to help them create bespoke wellbeing services and events that enhance the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of their employees. To find out how we can help your business to thrive and improve productivity, please get in touch.

Further reading:

NEF has published a report with key evidence on the factors that influence wellbeing at work, along with possible implications for employers and examples of organisations that are achieving high levels of wellbeing in the workplace.


Future of Work Insights report: Does Corporate Wellbeing Really Work?