Reflections on the HR Directors' Retreat Part 2: Making Health & Wellbeing a Strategic Priority

HR Network news

8 Mar 2021

In Part 2 of the 2021 IES HR Directors' Retreat we focused on the strategic business case for health and wellbeing at work. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a unique backdrop against which organisations’ health and wellbeing strategies have been severely tested. With many organisations considering hybrid working and thinking innovatively about how to support employees working in much more diverse ways, it will be important that health and wellbeing does not slip from the boardroom agenda.

The event was chaired by Wendy Hirsh, IES Principal Associate. Wendy thoughtfully set out the context for the event and linked it to the first part of the Retreat which focused on strategic workforce planning. I gave the first presentation which focused on results from IES research on wellbeing during lockdown and the lessons that this research has for HR practitioners. These include the desire of many employees to have access to more flexible working arrangements once the lockdown finishes, the importance of collecting better data to improve our understanding of the drivers of productivity during lockdown and in hybrid working arrangements, the importance of supporting line managers who are managing remote teams or teams working in multiple locations and the importance of filling the ‘social deficit’ which many employees have experienced during lockdown where isolation or lack of communication and connectedness has begun to affect the mental wellbeing of many employees.

In discussion sessions delegates talked through the challenges of supporting line managers and also how they intended to cope with increased demand for more hybrid working. In general, delegates reflected that many of their line managers had coped very well with lockdown while others needed extra support. In some organisations the annual appraisal process had been adapted to cope with remote working and some line managers had been provided with specific support around mental health. One organisation had put together line manager action learning groups to provide regular support and to give opportunities for reflection on professional practice. With regard to hybrid working, many organisations saw the lockdown and what follows as an acceleration of trends in work organisation which were already happening before the pandemic. In many ways the lockdown had forced organisations to move quicker than they had originally planned in this area, but most had had positive experiences and were intending to implement further changes to working arrangements building on the positive experiences that many of them have had during lockdown.

The second presentation was given by Wendy Cartwright who has previously been HR Director of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and most recently has had a senior role in the Houses of Parliament overseeing both HR and Facilities during the process of refurbishment on the Parliamentary Estate. Wendy discussed the challenges of presenting a business case for improved investment in health and wellbeing at work to Board-level Directors. She emphasised the importance of making both a moral and a business case, the importance of having a plan and trialling or piloting initiatives before taking them organisation-wide. She cautioned against assuming that Board Directors did not already consider the wellbeing of employees to be business-critical while reminding us that linking the impact of wellbeing to operational measures should always play a part in such arguments. Wendy emphasised the importance of using evidence from both inside and outside the organisation to make an argument for an investment. She also emphasised the importance of branding health and wellbeing initiatives both internally and externally.

Overall, the event suggested that many organisations have had a very steep learning curve during the lockdown and that the health and wellbeing of employees has been ‘centre stage’ in a way that it never has before. All delegates agreed that it will be important to make sure that wellbeing does not fall off the board agenda and that, as a profession, HR plays an important part in making sure that the business and operational benefits of a healthy workforce are kept at the forefront of the discussion. There was also broad agreement that there is a strong link between health and wellbeing, job quality, enhanced productive capacity, employee engagement and diversity and inclusion. Organisations need to understand the interconnectedness of these themes. The IES annual conference on 21 April will be focusing on diversity and inclusion as a theme, and HR Network members are encouraged to book their places on what promises to be a very stimulating event.