How to tackle employee wellbeing in our ever-changing world

Keeping workers happy and healthy goes much further than ping-pong tables and fruit bowls, says Cathy Smith

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Digital Vision/Getty Images

For quite some time, employee wellbeing was often dismissed as another HR fad and nothing but a buzzword in the corporate world. The reality is, workplace wellbeing has always been business critical, but it’s only in more recent years that corporations have come to widely acknowledge the intrinsic link between the health of their employees and the bottom line.

With this growing acknowledgement, the corporate approach towards employee wellness has significantly transformed. Gone are the days when companies would focus on just physical wellbeing, enticing employees with ‘perks’ such as ping-pong tables and free fruit. Today, workplace wellbeing is a comprehensive initiative at the forefront of the business agenda, encompassing every aspect of an employee’s life, from mental, social and emotional health to financial and personal growth.

The changing face of workplace mental health

Why? Multiple factors have contributed to the rise of the wellbeing agenda, but it can be explained, in part, by the generational shift in the workplace. Society’s attitudes towards mental health have shifted significantly. With that, younger generations of employees have come to expect more from their employers in the form of genuine commitments and support, and are not afraid to vote with their feet if their expectations are not met.

A new study by the Executive Development Network found that the majority of employees would be more likely to leave a job if it did not support their wellbeing, and 83 per cent of employees are more attracted to working at an organisation that demonstrates a ‘progressive company culture’.

It is younger generations who are pushing companies to radically rethink mental health support for workers. Talking about mental health in the workplace once seemed alien, but a new survey, by organisations including Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, in England found that one in four (27 per cent) full-time employees find the workplace to be the best space in which to discuss mental health. A separate study found that a colossal 82 per cent of Gen Z employees want mental health days, a concept that would likely not have been on an HR manager’s radar just a decade ago.

Understanding every individual has a unique set of challenges

It’s incredibly important for organisations to understand the cultural context of mental health and, therefore, the unique challenges facing each employee. Our diverse identities, backgrounds and experiences play a pivotal role in how we interact with our mental health.

Plus, there is no escaping the reality that modern society is a source of immense stress for employees. Living in a rapidly changing world filled with uncertainty takes a toll on all of us and, as the cost of living crisis continues, more employees are likely to experience difficulties that impact their mental health – with the crisis hitting women and ethnic minority groups harder. According to research by the Living Wage Foundation, more than three quarters of low-paid workers feel that this is the worst financial period they have ever faced. In the same study more than half (56 per cent) of those surveyed said they had to use food banks, 42 per cent said they were regularly skipping meals for financial reasons, and 32 per cent said they could not heat their homes.

Lastly, corporations must not underestimate the impact of new ways of working on mental health. While there are many positives to remote and hybrid working – ONS data shows that in February 2022 more than three quarters of those who worked from home in some capacity said that being able to work from home gave them an improved work-life balance – it doesn’t come without its challenges. Many employees have found the blurring of professional and personal boundaries difficult, feeling the pressure to be ‘always on’ and finding it tricky to ‘switch off’.

Wellbeing is not one dimensional

Employee wellbeing is not one dimensional and it’s no exaggeration to say that those organisations that fall into the trap of thinking it is are at risk of alienating huge numbers of employees. Offering support, training and benefits that bridge the whole employee wellbeing spectrum, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, disability and sexuality, is vital.

Rather than treating employee wellbeing as a ‘perk’ or a ‘tick-box exercise’ (knowing how essential it is to gaining and retaining talent), look to embed it into the culture of your organisation. For your business, that may mean embracing a shift in mindset. Listen to what your employees have to say and identify the gaps that exist – what do they want to see from you as an employer and where do they need your support to successfully manage their mental health?

No doubt, those organisations that are succeeding in improving their employees’ wellbeing are responsive to the constant shift in societal change and personal circumstance.

Cathy Smith is head of mental health operations (corporate) at Vita Health Group