Why Wellbeing Programs Fail – And How to Build Ones That Work

The need for improved wellbeing in the workplace is clear.
BCS Support Manager Joanna Saines recently outlined why so many well-intentioned organizations fail to implement a successful wellbeing program and offered practical advice on how to establish one that works.

The term “wellbeing” has truly become a buzzword within the last few years, particularly as it applies to the workplace. Despite its ubiquitous presence in corporate literature and CEO speeches, however, its exact meaning is often unclear. This is the case partly because so many different definitions have been put forth by so many different groups and individuals. For some, the term refers to mental health. To others it involves physical health, while some associate it primarily with diet and nutrition. There are many other interpretations as well.

The British Safety Council (BSC) has spent considerable time studying the topic and recently defined wellbeing as, “An individual’s ongoing state which enables them to thrive.”

Using this definition as a foundation, BCS Support Manager Joanna Saines recently outlined why so many well-intentioned organizations fail to implement a successful wellbeing program and offered practical advice on how to establish one that works.

A Business Imperative

The need for improved wellbeing in the workplace is clear, Saines said, given some alarming statistics which she presented during her recent seminar at the Health & Safety Matters Digital Conference. In the U.K., almost half of employees lose sleep because they are stressed at work, while 55 percent experience anxiety as a result of work stress.[i] Nearly four in every five UK workers (79 percent) experience work-related stress – 20 percent higher than in 2018.[ii] Another study found that COVID-19 is among the main causes of stress at work.[iii]

Why are these distressing realities important to a business? Saines pointed out that poor mental health is costing UK employers huge amounts of money. Employees feel happier and more productive when they’re healthier, and it’s clear that employee recruitment is costly to a business, both in terms of time and money. It has also become clear that the return on investment for wellbeing strategies has increased.

Unfortunately, although businesses are well aware of such statistics and often want to do better, they struggle to take effective action. Typical initiatives include cycle to work programs, free fruit in the office, healthy vending machines, and perhaps an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

“These things can be brilliant – for a day or two, or perhaps a month if you’re lucky,” Saines said. “But what happens is that, on their own, they don’t actually work.”

Why? One reason is that they are not part of any sort of strategy or plan. Companies invest considerable time and money to set them up, but employees often don’t realize that anything is actually being done to help them. Employers get disheartened because wellbeing doesn’t seem to have worked for them.

“And everyone is just a bit fed up. In fact, probably more fed up than before they even tried this wellbeing thing.”

Fatal Flaws

In these situations, some key steps are regularly overlooked by management in setting up their wellness initiatives: staff members are not consulted as to what intervention they needed or would use; the intervention did not receive appropriate senior management support; and it was not resourced sufficiently and promoted adequately across the organization.

“Organizations come to us saying that they offer yoga classes and they have an EAP program,” said Saines. “[However], it’s not clear if these interventions are the most effective use of the organisation’s investments, or whether they related to what the organization’s greatest needs were – or if they were what the employees actually wanted.”

Another underlying flaw with many companies’ approaches to wellbeing is a lack of understanding about where responsibility lies for their efforts. Is it HR? Is it Health and Safety? Somewhere else?

“They forget that health, safety, and wellbeing are totally integrated.They cover systems, processes, people and behaviors.”

Saines illustrated the point with an example of a worker who falls off a ladder and breaks his leg. “It is not just his leg that’s affected by the fall. It’s also going to affect his mental health. Perhaps his income. His social relationship. The list goes on…”

Keys to Success

The key to wellbeing success, therefore, is to have one clear strategy for your organization and harnessing your multidisciplinary team. This means considering health, safety and wellbeing as one entity and involving all key stakeholders.

Saines outlined three key steps to establishing a successful wellness program:

  1. Obtain commitment from your senior leadership team to make sure that wellbeing is taken seriously. This is crucial to ensuring your program is successful, and that wellbeing becomes embedded within your company. “Now more than ever, we need our leaders to show compassion, and to actively foster a culture that engenders trust and kindness.”
  2. Inform your strategy with qualitative and quantitative data. One of the most important aspects of creating a wellbeing strategy is knowing what your organization’s current situation is and what is needed to improve it, as well as getting your employees’ perspective. Use tools to help collect this data, such as the BSC’s Being Well Together assessment tool and its Employee Wellbeing Survey.
  3. Formulate your strategy with a four-step approach:
    1. Clearly state your vision and objective
    1. Identify responsibilities and agree on budgets and resources
    1. Outline your measures
    1. Select interventions and actions

[i] Perkbox, The 2020 UK Workplace Stress Survey

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] PWC, Delivery of Economic Value and Social Cohesion Through Good Jobs, 2021, p.8

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