Putting the ‘being’ at the heart of workplace wellbeing

Blog posts

3 Feb 2020

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

Good health is just an incomplete diagnosis’. This was a timely, but slightly chilling reminder to delegates at the recent IES Annual Conference that workforce wellbeing is likely to remain a challenge over the next decade and beyond.

In reality, both the content and tone of the conference were considerably more upbeat than this quotation might suggest. Indeed, the strong message from our opening speaker Dame Carol Black was that considerable progress has been made over the last 15 years both by policymakers and by employers; and that the growing body of research evidence and practitioner experience is helping us to identify where more innovation is needed and progress can be made.

Reflecting on the event, my take is that there were five key themes which emerged from both the presentations and the debates among our extremely well-informed participants.

First, the big demographic and health trends which have defined the past will continue to define the future. The ageing workforce, as we were reminded in an excellent overview by Patrick Thompson of the Centre for Ageing Better, will continue to require innovative responses from government, healthcare professionals and employers if we are to support older workers to extend their working lives in a healthy and fulfilling way. In addition, the growth of chronic ill-health in parts of the working age population and the continued widening of health inequalities means that workforce health will need to remain a public health priority in the next decade or so.

Second, we run the risk of over-medicalising workforce wellbeing. While there is an understandable desire in many circumstances to get a definitive clinical diagnosis if an employee is off sick or needs support at work, we can sometimes ignore the fact that poor wellbeing can be as much about how people are managed at work, the ways their jobs are designed or the way that change is implemented. It’s worth remembering that two people with the same diagnosis might have very different functional or cognitive capacities at work. We were reminded throughout the conference that many of the organisational factors underpinning poor wellbeing were not readily resolved by medical interventions. As one practitioner I spoke to said ‘the best workplace adjustment you can have is a great line manager’.

Third, enlightened advice and support from healthcare professionals can make a difference to both job retention and return to work. The mantra of ‘work as a clinical outcome’ has been oft-repeated over the last decade but attempts to engage GPs and others through the introduction of the Fit Note and the Fit for Work Service (both evaluated by IES researchers) have proven complex, to say the least. Dr Rob Hampton, speaking on behalf of Public Health England, gave delegates a more optimistic assessment, highlighting the use of Fit Notes by Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) such as Physiotherapists and Occupational Therapists.

Fourth, employers need better access to ‘evidence-based’ wellbeing practices. IES is frequently highlighting the rhetoric-reality gap in workplace health with our challenges to ‘fruit and Pilates evangelism’ and our concerns about the robustness of popular interventions such as Mental Health First Aid. Yet, the evidence of what works is hampered by the difficulty in conducting decent research in complex and dynamic workplace settings which meets the exacting publication standards of peer-reviewed journals.

This often means that there may be ‘common sense’ evidence that a workplace intervention is probably going to add value if it is implemented and evaluated thoughtfully, but the lack of ‘gold standard’ evidence from a randomised control trial (RCT) means that it cannot be definitively recommended. Perhaps we need to find ways of bringing digestible ‘best evidence’ assessments to the attention of employers instead of scolding them for choosing plausible but distinctly dodgy practices which some providers are queuing up to sell them.

This leads me to my fifth point. Organisations like IES are well-positioned to help employers become more empowered and critical consumers of the growing number of wellbeing products, services and interventions. I meet too many organisations whose wellbeing budgets are spent on ‘wellness perks’ aimed at attracting and retaining talent rather than practices which stand a good chance of promoting health, giving employees early access to support, reducing absence or ‘presenteeism’ and supporting effective vocational rehabilitation. Many of the delegates to our conference were struggling to navigate the bewildering array of consultancies offering them solutions to their absence management, workplace stress or line management wellness training problems.

As an independent outfit, which has an unmatched record in researching the effectiveness of many wellbeing practices, IES is in a good position to help employers to sort the serious from the snake-oil and we used the conference to introduce to the world our Workplace Wellbeing Audit through which we support employers to take stock, plan, implement and evaluate what they are doing to improve workforce health and productivity.

Of course there are more philosophical and ethical debates about workplace wellbeing which will continue into the future. Where does the employer’s ‘duty of care’ stop and the private business of employees start? Should employees be taking more responsibility for their own wellbeing? What are the limits of the ‘business case’ for workplace health and should the ‘moral case’ be given more prominence? Will the investment community start taking an interest in workforce health as a risk or an asset? Alas, there isn’t room to dive into these important debates here, but it was uplifting to find that so many of our conference delegates had a genuinely sophisticated and nuanced understanding of these and other challenges. IES stands ready to continue to play a central part in these debates in the future and to have a tangible impact on organisational practice too.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.