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Workplace wellbeing: how to make it better — and what makes it worse

Ian Edwards has long sought to improve the well-being of employees at Nomura, but in the past few years he has observed new pressures on their physical and mental health, productivity and retention in the workforce.

As health and safety manager for the UK operations of the Japanese bank, he has seen a notable jump in stress linked to caring for family members during and since the outbreak of Covid-19, as well as growing financial worries and fear about climate change.

“We saw social anxiety increase,” he says. “There are also a whole series of financial and environmental concerns affecting our employees. They are worrying about where their fish are [in their diet] are coming from, whether the house will flood.”

Fresh data from more than 8,500 employees in 65 organizations participating in Britain’s Healthiest Workplace — a survey conducted by health insurer Vitality with partners including the Financial Times, and which has consistently rated Nomura as a strong performer — underscores his views.

It shows a surge in mental ill health and anxiety compared with previous years, and a rise in sickness absences and “presenteeism” or unproductive working. It also highlights the effects of recent trends, including the sharp increase in remote working sparked by lockdowns and infection-control measures in response to Covid-19.

The survey suggests that employees who are able to adopt hybrid working patterns — balancing their time between office and home — have the highest levels of job satisfaction and the lowest levels of presenteeism and absenteeism. The least productive were those required to be away from home in workplaces other than an office — such as a factory or retail outlet.

Since the start of Covid-19 especially, employers have shown increased interest in staff wellbeing as they seek to support continued growth in their organisations. They have explored new approaches and tools, from mindfulness apps to restructuring roles and responsibilities. That has sparked a thriving wellness industry offering programs that claim to improve health.

But experts who study the topic warn that there is a lack of rigorous research on cause and effect, and which interventions really work. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an economist at the Saïd Business School at Oxford university, says: “There is little ‘gold standard’ evidence with randomized control trials. There are lots of small pilots which are often not well evaluated or reported on.

“There is one piece of really good evidence: you can’t yoga your way out of these more structural issues underpinning mental and physical health. That’s not to say mindfulness is a bad thing, but it’s not addressing the main structural causes.”

He points to a rigorous analysis published in 2019 called the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study, which explored the effects over two years of a comprehensive workplace wellness program called iThrive in Urbana-Champaign in the US.

It concluded that while workers on the program reported good health, there was a strong selection bias: those who participated tended already to be wealthier and healthier, while the employees who could have gained most — including smokers and those who already had higher health costs — did not engage.

De Neve’s own recent research at BT, the telecoms company, has shown a connection between the presence of windows in offices — providing call center staff with visual exposure to the weather — and their mood and productivity levels, which rose when they were happier.

Yet he is cautious of drawing any simple conclusions on the applicability of such findings in practice. He points to wider research on the importance for well-being of strong workplace social networks, supportive teams, mentoring, individual autonomy, flexibility and a sense of purpose.

Others share his views on the need to tackle these deeper structural issues linked to management style and work culture. Nancy Hey, executive director of the What Works Center for Wellbeing, says: “Interesting work, relationships and flexibility are top drivers of employee wellbeing at work.”

She argues there has been an improvement in recent years, as employers have taken up these wider issues. Those which performed best had already appointed chief medical officers before the pandemic began, and introduced strategies for physical and mental well-being — including plans for more flexible working.

But she also stresses the difficulties for line managers, who are pivotal in trying to foster a more supportive work culture while not having full freedom to do so — and while they also struggle with the same problems as those they supervise. “They are often miserable and at an age of peak misery themselves.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and author of books on the topic including Dying For A Paycheckpoints to a still more existential cause of poor employee well-being in the workplace: economic insecurity around pay and employment.

“Forty years of research on the effects of lay-offs show they lead to increased suicide rates, overeating, drinking, smoking and drug use,” he says. He argues that during the height of the pandemic, many employers embraced wellness programs as they worried about staff recruitment and retention. But their commitment has waned rapidly since the more recent economic slowdown.

Citing the recent job shake-out in the technology sector, he says: “A year ago they said they were concerned, but as soon as there is any change in the economy, all that goes out of the window and they let people go. If employers were actually concerned, they wouldn’t increase insecurity.”

He points to a few exceptions among businesses which have resisted such cyclical policies of hiring and firing: Southwest Airlines, the outdoor equipment company Patagonia and Barry-Wehmiller, the industrial group, which during the Great Recession of 2008-09 shared the pain by reducing salaries rather than cutting headcount.

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Bob Chapman, Barry-Wehmiller’s chair and chief executive, has argued for the importance of empathetic management in contrast to what he described earlier this year as a more typical trend: “Traditional leadership or management conditions us to view people as functions, to get them to do what we want so we can be successful, not because we care about them.”

For Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School and co-founder of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, the most effective measures to improve employee wellbeing would be to give equal weight to “people skills” and emotional intelligence alongside technical skills when recruiting or promoting line managers.

He also says employers should appoint a non-executive director and a senior executive responsible for health and wellbeing; and to introduce regular surveys and reporting to measure the effects on the workforce.

Even for companies such as Nomura that have the resources and commitment to well-being, identifying the right policies and overcoming external pressures beyond their control remain significant constraints.

Nomura’s Edwards points out that even while remote and hybrid working has simplified efforts to train its line managers, it has reduced the benefits of human contact in the office. “It is giving people more flexibility but they are not getting the health benefit from it yet.”

And however much the bank does to support staff, it has limited ability to influence external factors that weigh on staff well-being. “You think employees are healthier and then you get Brexit or the war in Ukraine and it totally changes the playing field.”

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