Here's the business case for prioritizing employee wellness. It all starts with employee needs — and how to meet them.

In an ideal world, all organizations would understand the importance of investing in wellbeing as the right thing to do from a moral perspective. They wouldn’t need a business case to justify investment. But wellbeing, done right, can have a tangible business impact. When Accenture made an investment in a wellbeing program, it led to an 8 percent increase in employee engagement, 9,000 hours’ reduction of absenteeism, and a 3 percent increase in productivity. And the Human Capital Management Institute found that when companies invest just one dollar per person on wellbeing, those employees outperform their peers and experience an 11.7 percent productivity gain.

But a wellbeing program may not result in a lightning bolt of productivity. It may not have obvious results at all, which is just one reason senior leadership may be skeptical when it comes to wellbeing initiatives. But there are effective approaches to getting support — as well as better meeting the wellness needs of employees. First of all, reframe it as a cultural way of being, not a list of isolated perks to check off. To have an impact, it needs to meet a whole series of employee needs:

Health and Balance

Anything you do should be designed to help people keep themselves in balance. Consider providing flexibility in the way people work, and provide access to health benefits that help prevent as well as cure health issues.

Safety and Security

Safety is one of the essentials on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We all have a primal need to feel safe and secure. Once we understand that, we can build a healthy work environment where people feel safe enough to work, safe enough to voice their opinions, and secure in a community that gives them a sense of belonging. It means leaders who are secure enough to listen and to be challenged. It also means understanding the financial pressures that employees face outside of work, and providing support, education, and tools to help people take care of their day-to-day needs.

Value and Meaning

It’s so important for organizations to provide a clear direction and a stated higher purpose that people can rally around. When employees know the organization’s objectives and aspirations and why they matter, they can align themselves to those goals. Leaders play a key role in helping people organize their work around the goals of the organization as well as their strengths — as both of these things help people to achieve greater meaning. It’s also vital to provide feedback on the value that a person brings to the organization, and recognize people for their contributions.

When you understand what leads to wellbeing, you can start to build your working practices and culture around it with these six steps:

1. Know your starting point. 

Wellbeing shouldn’t be something owned by HR; it should be owned by every single person in the organization. Having a clear ‘why’ for your wellbeing efforts will create a more compelling purpose for others to get behind. Try to align what you do with the organization’s purpose and strategic objectives as well as employee needs. If you gather data on employee turnover and absence, use that to guide your efforts and measure improvements.

2. Extend it from what already exists.

Any wellbeing efforts should be seen as a continuation of what is already happening in the organization, and intended to improve the existing culture. That means improving on current performance management processes, improving engagement through building the relationships between managers and employees, and helping leaders better understand the impact they have through helping them understand more about themselves and each other. If you already develop leaders, placing emphasis on the development of self-awareness is essential. Help employees understand what they need to do should they have mental health challenges, as you will see greater return if you focus on keeping employees mentally fit. This can be done through education, working practices, and building a culture of support and autonomy.  If you already have the mind of culture, that’s great. If you don’t, consider why not.

3. Know your destination.

When you understand the critical needs of the business, you will have a more compelling case for change. So make sure you know the answers to these questions: Where are you are trying to get to? What is your vision for the future? What outcomes are you aiming for? What problems are you trying to solve? And: What is keeping the senior leadership team up at night? For the most progressive organizations, they will also be considering what keeps employees up at night.

4. Look at working practices.

Think about how the environment enables people to work and feel at their best. It should address fundamental needs and remove the obstacles to getting great work done and reducing strain. Both are often cited as two reasons employees reach burnout. It’s up to leaders to make sure that both are considered in planning workflow.

5. Get leadership buy-in.

No amount of effort on the part of HR or the wellbeing team is going to make a difference if the leadership team has not bought in. Consult leadership on what they think would make the biggest difference in terms of their coming on board, and what obstacles stand in the way of the organization progressing on wellbeing. If you’re trying to raise awareness of the need for a mental health initiative, try to find leaders who have experienced their own challenges, so they can support your efforts.

6. Get employees involved.

To get employees involved, ask them how they feel about the way they work. Are they able to get their work done effectively? What gets in the way of their being able to focus and excel, and what makes it easier for them to focus and excel? Solicit their input and their ideas. Giving employees a voice and acting on it also improves wellbeing.

Bringing wellbeing into your organization doesn’t have to happen all at once. The key is identifying what’s going to make the biggest difference to both leadership and the employees. Talk about culture development and business outcomes and discuss the idea of doing the right thing. Look to other organizations for examples, and find out what works and what doesn’t. And feel free to beta-test programs, working with those in the organization who are most up for change. If something works, you can demonstrate its success with them, and get everyone else to realize that wellbeing is possible — and feasible.

Natasha Wallace

Natasha Wallace is Founder and Chief Coach of Conscious Works, a coaching and leadership development company specializing in wellbeing. Having spent many years working in organizational and leadership development and as a former HR Director, Wallace left her job having reached burnout. It led her to recognize that there are two fundamental things getting in the way of people staying well at work — self knowledge and self care. She set up her company and wrote her book, “The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing,” to help fix that problem — to help people to become more conscious so they can optimize themselves and their teams. She now inspires a well world of work, coaching and advising leaders and their teams on how to create healthier and happier workplaces through a greater focus on wellbeing and its connection to high performance.

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