‘Woeful ignorance’ over worker wellbeing must end, report warns

New British Safety Council study stresses good intentions could lead to ‘incoherent’ health initiatives

“Laudable” intentions behind initiatives aimed at improving employee wellbeing may actually play a part in their ineffectiveness, a new report published by the British Safety Council (BSC) has suggested.

In the report, Lawrence Waterman, chair of the BSC’s board of trustees, said despite genuine enthusiasm and commitment, wellbeing efforts often had a “woeful ignorance of what will, sustainably and effectively, make a difference”.

He added: “There lies the risk that this positivity, coupled with a belief that workers who are truly ‘well’, rather than merely not unwell, will be more productive and happier at work and thus more likely to remain, could simply dissipate into incoherent programmes of free bananas and occasional ‘health weeks’.”

The report, which included a comprehensive review of existing literature and market intelligence, billed itself as a call to action for employers in Britain to place the wellbeing needs of their workers at the top of the executive agenda. 

Waterman said the report was BSC’s contribution to “establishing rigorous, evidence-based workplace interventions”.

“It calls for commitment, clear thinking and effective action, not only to make our workplaces healthy and safe, but also to make a tangible impact on improving the lives of all workers,” he added.

In May, the CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work report found only one in six (17 per cent) organisations evaluated the impact of their health and wellbeing initiatives. The CIPD urged employers to ensure line managers were equipped to recognise early signs of stress and mental ill-health as they are often the first port of call for struggling staff.

Rachel Suff, CIPD health and wellbeing advisor, responded to the BSC’s report by highlighting the improvements seen in the CIPD survey results compared to its 2016 iteration, adding: “A lot of programmes are not realising their potential because they tend to consist of one-off initiatives that are reactive and not fully integrated across the organisation.

“Given that good leadership and people management practices form the foundations of building a healthy workplace, every employer needs to focus their attention on these areas if they want to make a long-term and sustainable difference to people’s wellbeing.”

The report’s recommendations included inviting employees to participate in the creation and development of wellbeing initiatives, training line managers in mental health awareness, and ensuring job quality. Job quality was described as a healthy working environment, fair wages, strong relationships with managers and colleagues and career development prospects, among other things.

Suff recommended organisations first be clear on what they are trying to achieve, for example reduced sickness absence, improved wellbeing, higher engagement or better retention. They also needed a clearer understanding of the wellbeing needs and issues for employees and their organisation.

She added it was important for organisations to evaluate the impact of their health and wellbeing interventions so they know if their actions are making a difference and meeting employee needs. “Being able to show impact is vital to build the case for further investment going forward,” she said.