Employee wellbeing has always been high on the corporate agenda - particularly over the last decade – but COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of the holistic approach.
"The pandemic has brought wellbeing to the forefront of organisations' focus," says Hazel Craig, Senior Data Analytics and Wellbeing Consultant at Howden Employee Benefits. "Historically, wellness has always been part of people strategy, but it hasn't always taken precedence. Sometimes it's seen as a fad or a tick-box exercise."
Yet wellness has become a key strategy in helping employees navigate through new working environments during the pandemic. Craig, who spoke about employee wellbeing at ICAEW'S Virtually Live event, cites research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which found that growing numbers of organisations are now investing in employee wellbeing in response to COVID-19.
In Craig's view, the pandemic has both exaggerated existing wellbeing risks and created new ones: those with existing mental health issues have reported deteriorating conditions, and over a quarter of adults have experienced financial struggles, while new risks have arisen, including social isolation and loneliness.
Craig describes a 'fundamental shift' in business thinking around wellbeing. Many organisations move towards a proactive approach around prevention and early intervention service provision rather than solely treatment-based, reactive services.
"This shift in thinking is something that will continue into the future, with organisations looking at maintaining positive workforce wellbeing," she says. "It's becoming more about ‘how can we build a culture and environment which supports positive wellbeing from the outset?’"
As Craig explains, 'reactive' treatment-focused provision, including private medical schemes, access to talking therapies or debt support services through employee assistance programmes (EAPs), continue to have their place. Still, proactive-based initiatives such as mindfulness sessions, employee fitness campaigns or financial education provision are becoming more prevalent - and should be the focus for every organisation.
Considering how interconnected every aspect of wellbeing is, particularly the long-established link between financial wellbeing and mental health, this, says Fiona Terry, Senior Workplace Pension Consultant at Howden Employee Benefits, is crucial.
"Poor financial wellbeing can have a huge impact on mental health and, in turn, can have a very damaging impact on performance in the workplace," says Terry. "We know, for example, that money worries are one of the key topics keeping people up at night."
Yet financial wellbeing appears to be one of the most neglected areas of wellbeing and is often misunderstood. As Terry explains, financial wellbeing is not necessarily about having more money, but about individuals having more control and understanding of their finances and making better financial decisions now and in the long term.
"It's very clear that if employers can support financial wellbeing, it really does improve productivity in the workplace. It's about enabling employees to take control of their own finances, so from that point of view, financial education is key."
So what can employers do to ensure they support employee wellbeing holistically, and where should they start?
"It's about defining what employee wellbeing means to you and your employees and understanding the needs of your employees," says Craig. "This is a really important factor in any future wellbeing strategy as it gives you your goals and objectives to focus on." A big part of this is understanding the risks the workforce faces to ascertain the value a potential benefit or initiative would bring.
Reviewing existing employee benefits provisions is also essential to ensure it addresses current needs and potential risks. It matters for new, emerging issues, such as initiatives to tackle social isolation for those working from home or offering training for employees to help reduce burnout when working remotely.
She also points to the recent uptake of virtual-based services, such as remote GP and physio consultations made available through many PMI schemes. She recommends ensuring virtual and digital health provision is provided, along with regular health screening.
Terry recommends signposting employees to relevant support services on the company intranet site or via email with links to services offered through EAPs such as money or debt management support or debt consolidation.
Specific financial wellbeing provisions can also include salary sacrifice schemes whereby a portion of an employee's pensionable pay is exchanged for a non-cash benefit such as cycle-to-work initiatives, childcare vouchers or gym membership.
Ultimately, wellbeing provision and an organisation's approach to wellbeing will become more of a 'differentiating factor' for organisations, says Craig. A proactive, holistic employee wellbeing initiative will not only increase engagement, happiness and productivity levels but help with retention and talent attraction, too.
"The pandemic really has changed the way we work, and it's changed the risks that employees might experience or face," Craig adds. "COVID is showing that we do need to move away from just focusing on the reactive space and think how we can better maintain positive wellbeing in the first instance."
Members can watch the ICAEW Virtually live event here: ‘The future of workplace wellbeing’
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