Lack of data holding wellbeing strategies back, survey finds

Study reveals most big firms now use management information to assess initiatives, but experts warn HR must upskill to be able to truly track their effectiveness

Limited availability of data and a lack of analytics expertise is hindering organisations’ efforts to track and measure the effectiveness of their wellbeing initiatives, according to research.

The report, compiled by the Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA) in association with AXA PPP Healthcare, found the majority of large organisations now used some form of management information to assess their wellbeing strategies.

However, half (49 per cent) of the 309 employers surveyed said limited availability of data was holding efforts to do this back. Meanwhile, two-fifths (43 per cent) cited poor quality data as a hindrance, while a quarter (25 per cent) said a lack of data analytics expertise was a barrier to proving effectiveness. 

A third (36 per cent) said a lack of suitable data collection was hindering measurement attempts.

The research also found, however, that the number of organisations using data to track and evidence the effectiveness of their wellbeing strategies had jumped 18 percentage points, from 74 per cent to 92 per cent, in the last year. Meanwhile, the number reporting on wellbeing metrics had risen from 67 per cent in 2019 to 76 per cent in 2020.

But only half (53 per cent) of employers reported being confident they could interpret and understand the impact of their wellbeing data on the organisation’s wider business strategy, and only 10 per cent included this data in their annual reports. 

Commenting on the results, Debi O’Donovan, co-founder and director of REBA, warned that most employers were using proxy figures such as employee engagement “rather than attempting to see shifts at a strategic business level”.

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser on organisational behaviour at CIPD, agreed many businesses still struggled to track and report on people data in a truly effective, business-enhancing way. He said this was something that needed urgently addressing as good quality data had a vital role to play in effective HR.

“Data should be relevant, representative, valid – in that it measures what it sets out to measure – and reliable. Unfortunately it is most often not,” he said.

The issue had only become more urgent in light of the current pandemic and its threat to worker wellbeing, highlighted Keith McNulty, global director of people analytics and measurement at McKinsey. He said the Covid-19 crisis would “expose organisations that hadn’t invested in strong analytics for their employee body”. 

Lack of robust training in analytics was a major part of the problem “particularly in HR”, he added. The profession too often relied on third party products to plug the gap left by a lack of in-house skills, he said, with the danger being that such products had “a very wide standard, and were often unproven or have questionable science behind them”.

Vicky Pawsey, director of Papillon Psychology, said that HR’s capability in designing, implementing and evaluating wellbeing strategies using data could be further supported by “more collaboration between HR teams and organisational psychologists”. This would “create partnerships that delivered on both the art and the science of wellbeing and its positive commercial and psychological health outcomes,” she said.  

The REBA and AXA report also found that mental health remained a key issue for boardrooms across the UK, with 89 per cent of respondents saying it was their boss’s top wellbeing concern. Nearly seven in 10 (69 per cent) said their leaders ranked physical wellbeing as one of their top two concerns, and a quarter (25 per cent) cited financial wellbeing. 

It also found that at more than half (52 per cent) of organisations, HR controlled the budget for wellbeing initiatives and had final sign-off on spending on this. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) said their organisation had a joined-up employee wellbeing strategy in place – more than double the amount (30 per cent) who said the same when the survey began in 2016. 

“Employers are recognising that you cannot separate work from employee wellbeing, but [you must also] be wary of jumping on the bandwagon and using wellbeing initiatives as a ‘tick box’ exercise,” commented Julia Sinclair-Brown, director, trainer and coach at Evolvida, adding that “using data to influence decision making” was key to preventing this.