"Britain’s workplaces held back by poorly designed wellbeing initiatives"

Too many organisations make wellbeing offerings optional or not visible, diminishing their return on productivity and health, it was heard on day one of the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference yesterday.

Dr Christian van Stolk Vice president of research firm RAND Europe, illustrating with an anecdote, described how one NHS Trust he visited put its wellbeing intervention in a building a mile off site and ‘past the bins’: “Is that really a driver for participation for people working in operative theatres? Just think it through in terms of access,” he challenged the audience.

Van Stolk, speaking in Birmingham’s NEC centre, added that wellbeing should be a core part of the business, from the time firms allocate for employees to take part in interventions, to board support for them.

“Don’t make wellbeing a bolt on, something you do in lunch, make it core to what you are doing in the workplace,” he told the audience.

“Whether an organisation reports internally or externally on wellbeing is key – so that there is board level discussion and reporting.”

Poor mental health is the leading cause of productivity loss. Photograph: slide from RAND presentation

Leaders who see wellbeing as essential to productive working and business culture also have higher engagement, he said. “Culture change starts with the line manager and senior leadership in your organisation.”

Van Stolk was sharing insights from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, which RAND researches. Participation in wellbeing programmes was found to have reduced employee’s work impairment by 3.3 percentage points compared with those who never engaged. Longer term participation returned health benefits including better mental health, cardiovascular health and perceptions of bullying.

He emphasised that participation in wellbeing initiatives is the next challenge for organisations, with firms entering each year into Vitality’s workplace competition seeing barely any increase in uptake and awareness of wellbeing initiatives, despite the offerings improving. For example, nearly 50 per cent of 26,000 employees across 129 firms surveyed have access to interventions, but only 22 per cent were aware of the offer. Less than a third of those aware are participating. “Ability is just the first step. Awareness and participation are key,” he said.

When quizzed from the audience his views on whether any specific wellbeing intervention is more effective he said: “I’m quite sceptical of putting faith in one single intervention. I think it’s a holistic approach and you can’t take work culture out of this. Leaders who are supportive will find their line managers are too – it’s that whole ecosystem.”

Health and Wellbeing at Work takes place from 5 to 6 March at Birmingham's NEC centre