Wellbeing and productivity: Can employees design their jobs better than the boss?

New research shows why organisations often fail to improve staff wellbeing, and what can be done to build a comprehensive strategy.

Studies suggest that job type or industry sector are not necessarily defining factors of what makes a good job. Instead, things like how secure it is, our social connections, on-the-job learning opportunities, supportive organisations, and clear responsibilities are just some of the elements seen by employees as more important. When we move into a role with none, or fewer, of these elements, our life satisfaction drops. Even when we move out of unemployment and into work, how big an impact this has on our wellbeing depends on the quality of the job.

New research, carried out by researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School as part of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, reviewed over 4,000 studies of the practical actions organisations can take to maximise their chances of designing high quality jobs.

Only 28 per cent of workers in the UK are highly satisfied with their jobs, which means that more than seven in 10 of are not. The happiest days for Brits are the weekends, according to the study, yet estimates suggest that an adult in work would spend an average of 57 per cent of their waking hours working.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing recommends that policy-makers create incentives for employers to develop high quality work, as well as guidance on how to do so. They point to the management standards for work-related stress issued by the Health and Safety Executive, and suggest adapting them to include the evidence-based actions outlined in the review.
“The evidence shows us that getting employees involved in designing their own job means listening to their needs, supporting their development and training them where appropriate,” explains Nancy Hey, director of the The What Works Centre. “Organisations need to look at how embedded wellbeing is in their DNA, not only within one department or champion. We want to see more discussion in workplaces about what a quality job looks like in that company.”

Professor Kevin Daniels, who leads the team that completed the review, believes it’s about quality of work over hours spent. “We’ve known for a long time what a good quality job looks like and the benefits good quality work has for wellbeing, mental health, physical health and productivity. Our review adds to the evidence on what a good job quality is by pointing to some promising actions on how organisations can enhance the quality of work, wellbeing and performance.”

Employee wellbeing: a business priority

With work related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain reaching 11.7 million days in 2015/16, The Health Insurance Group ran a study to examine the impact employee health and wellbeing has on business’s performance. The survey found that 40 per cent of companies have had or have put in place a health and wellbeing strategy over the past five years, and over 35 per cent are looking to implement one within the next few years. But just how effective are these strategies if there are so many negatively affected working adults?

“Greater emphasis has been placed on health and wellbeing and mental health in the workplace over the past decade. Mental health problems and stress are now responsible for more than 24 working days lost per case making it one of the leading causes of absence in the work place,” Brett Hill, The Health Insurance Group’s MD explains.

“It is vital that employers ensure that they have an effective health and wellbeing strategy in place, particularly to handle issues such as mental health problems. This needs to be tackled in a sensitive way as a mental health condition can be classed as a disability if it has a considerable and lasting effect on a person’s capabilities in terms of carrying out day to day activities. It is imperative that employers understand their responsibilities in such cases, so they can provide employees with the support they need, help their managers to handle such situations sensitively and appropriately, and avoid the potential liabilities that can arise from a business getting things wrong in such situations.”

Mental health support

Patient data released from RedArc Nurses strongly supports the case for employer-sponsored mental health provision for employees. The figures collated over the last five years show a huge improvement across all mental health conditions where employees have been provided with support. Christine Husbands, RedArc MD, believes nipping existing conditions in the bud is crucial to the success of treating mental health issues, as is prevention before an employee develops a more serious disorder. “It has been widely acknowledged that the NHS has significant shortcomings in the timely treatment of mental health conditions, and so more employees will be turning to their employer for help in ensuring a return to productivity and wellbeing,” she says.

“Employees who do not have access to mental health support via their employers’ insurances, would have to navigate the NHS system, which means getting a GP referral and then waiting for availability of mental health support services, which can often take some time. This can cause an additional level of stress for the individual, meaning their condition could escalate as well as a potentially longer spell of absence from work. Early intervention is key in supporting employees with mental health conditions. For employers this means taking two actions: selecting group risk, health insurance products or Employee Assistance Programmes that offer third-party support services, and secondly, communicating their availability to their staff. Too often people are not aware of these services, or they’re not fully understood and are therefore under-utilised.”

Business tools

Employee wellbeing and satisfaction is tied to the compatibility of work and personal life. However current staffing methods, like spreadsheets, are incredibly time-consuming for managers to consider every employee’s preferences. Tools like data-led algorithm based RotaGeek, looks at both business demands, like footfall, and at employee preferences to create a solution that works for everyone.

“The death of the “normal” working day is one of the biggest risks that businesses will face over the next few years but it is also one of the best opportunities. The trend to provide more realistic and accommodating working hours is on the rise and justifiably so,” explains RotaGeek CEO and co-founder Chris McCullough.

RotaGeek originally started as a tool in the healthcare industry. McCullough spent eight years working as a doctor in A&E before realising the need for more efficient rota systems across a wide range of different sectors. RotaGeek has since grown to a software working with a range of retailers, healthcare organisations and hospitality services both in the UK and internationally. Earlier this month, the business announced a record breaking four-fold growth in 2016, and 530 per cent end-user growth in Q1 2017. Doubling its team over the last 12 months, the company also saw the number of stores using the platform increase five-fold in the last quarter.

“Happier employees are more motivated and productive. This is why scheduling is important and we’re proud to be helping some of the UK’s most well-known organisations improve employee satisfaction and save millions of pounds every year,” he adds.

A new ONS report shows that that on average, UK workers took just over four days off sick last year, the lowest recorded absence rate since the records began in 1993. According to Adrian Lewis, CEO of cloud-based absence management and staff holiday planning software company, Activ Absence, these numbers could be skewed as calculating and planning for absences isn’t always accurate across all businesses. “Many manual spreadsheets and payroll-only systems do not give accurate estimates of staff sick days anyway, so for some organisations these figures will be a guess at best.  In my opinion, a proper automated absence management system with good reporting tools will not only accurately measure absence but will also distinguish between employees who swing the lead and identify those genuinely sick employees in need of support (not discipline),” he says.

The statistics show the highest improvement among older employees with long term health conditions, absence management experts are concerned that the lower rates could be down to fear and presenteeism trends rather than a healthier workforce.

“My concern is that some employers are still not be getting the balance right – it’s not just about improving the figures, we want staff to be healthy, not scared to take time off,” he adds.   Many employers have ‘tightened up’ on policies without any analysis or investment in tools to give meaningful data, according to Lewis. “I recently heard of a public sector employee with pneumonia, clearly too sick to work, who was afraid of being disciplined under a sickness absence policy, so went into work anyway.  Ironically, the sickness monitoring system being used by that organisation only measured long term absence and could not even identify the ‘odd sickie’ trends which are far more disruptive to the business. Presenteeism is a very real concern.”   

Ultimately, the right systems need to be followed up with best-practice HR policies, such as conducting return to work interviews, even for short term absence – with the focus being on support, not judgement, he explains. ” The resulting analytics can also be used to identify opportunities to improve staff health and wellbeing – and can help make sure your benefits strategy is aligned with these goals. Any strategy to reduce sick days should never include scaring genuinely sick people back into work.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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