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Wellness in the workplace – it’s a win-win strategy

Tim VaughanTim Vaughan·
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When Ryan Holmes, the founder and CEO of the social media management platform Hootsuite, sits in his office what are the sounds he hears? Nothing? The quiet, focused traffic of staff going about their business?

No, what the entrepreneur hears is the clanking of weights and the thump of bass from a Bluetooth speaker as some of his 1,000 employees work out in the company gym that sits outside a corner of the CEO’s office. It might seem unusual, but from the get-go Holmes built fitness into how Hootsuite went about its business.

“For health, for morale and, yes, for the bottom line, it’s the best decision we could have made. And it didn’t require much of an investment or sacrifice – just as a commitment to enable exercise in the office,” he said.

Holmes might be unique as a multi-millionaire CEO who has staff clanging barbells outside his office every day but he is far from being alone when it comes to realizing the crucial importance of wellness in the workplace. For everybody, both employer as much as employee.

The benefits to employees of having a comprehensive wellness program at work are obvious: the ability to exercise, access to healthy food, in-house or virtual medical facilities, workplace physiotherapists and staff gyms, yoga, pilates and mindfulness classes – these are all becoming the norm in organizations all over the world.

And for companies funding what can seem like significant costs attached to these facilities and programs, there is the welcome certainty that not only do their employees feel healthier and happier, they are as a result more productive, producing an even healthier bottom line.
The perfect win-win.

According to Debi O’Donovan, Director of the UK’s Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) “business leaders are wising up to the power of using workplace wellbeing strategies to drive up engagement, improve company culture and ultimately boost productivity”.

“This is not about merely replacing the crisp machine with bowls of fruit for staff, although that is a good idea, but rather about propagating deep cultural changes which span employee health, wealth and happiness, to leadership, development, talent management and workforce planning,” said O’Donovan.

Take this for a deep cultural change challenge: you are a busy, under-pressure manager trying to lead your staff to meet already stretched quarterly targets and you’ve got a choice between getting them together to discuss preparation for a presentation or a scheduled team run (gym session, pilates class, take your pick).

It’s not difficult to see which option would prevail in a company where a deep commitment to wellness wasn’t truly embedded. The deep cultural challenge is how to get there. But companies that succeed in making employee wellness part of their culture, where the team run or gym session is not always competing with the presentation prep, these are the enlightened organizations who are reaping the rewards.

As Ryan Holmes of Hootsuite acknowledged, while his commitment to fitness in the workplace is aimed at having his staff healthier, it’s with a keen eye on improving the bottom line. He quotes a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine which showed that incorporating just 2.5 hours of exercise per week into the workday led to a noticeable reduction in absences.

“Perhaps most importantly, fit and healthy workers are less prone to exactly the kinds of preventable, debilitating illnesses that take such a heavy toll on families and on society,” he said.

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That toll is enormous. Take the UK alone. Between 2013 and 2014 over 11 million days of work were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety – an average of 23 days per person. Mental health is increasingly becoming a major factor for employers to contend with – one in six workers in the UK are affected at some stage by stress-related anxiety or depression, at a cost of £26 billion to employers annually.

It’s important to acknowledge that the stress may not be always, or even frequently, work-related, but that doesn’t gainsay its impact on the bottom line for companies and organizations – and, of course, the enormous emotional and human cost on individual employees, their colleagues and their families.

The increasing awareness of the importance of wellness in the workplace can also be put down to the realization that with the greatest global shortage in skilled talent in over a decade, it can be a key driver in both attracting and retaining employees.

REBA’s Debi O’Donovan, writing in Raconteur recently, said workplace wellbeing focusses on three strands of physical health, emotional health and financial wellness. “Physical health is the most obvious, covering both prevention and cure. For example, bike-to-work schemes, exercise programs, nutrition, stop-smoking campaigns, rehabilitating people back to work and so on,” she says.

“Emotional wellbeing deals with stress, anxiety and more complex mental health issues. But increasingly it focuses on the positive side such as building mental resilience and using mindfulness as a management tool.

“Financial wellness as part of a wellbeing strategy is the newest, but fastest growing kid on the block,” according to O’Donovan. “For most of us, work is our primary, and often only, source of income, both immediately and for the future when we can no longer work. Money is the biggest cause of stress, while how much we have has the greatest correlation to our level of health.

“So employers are increasingly aware that they cannot ignore financial wellness within any wellbeing strategy. But they are still largely getting to grips with how to weave in debt management, savings and earnings without crossing a line with staff.”

In their enthusiasm for improving wellness and wellbeing in their workplaces, however, companies also have to be aware of not crossing another, more subtle but still valid line – not to be overbearing, intrusive or forced in the encouragement of employee participation. Otherwise a company risks appearing as if it wants to ‘own’ the employee, which is guaranteed to backfire.
Ultimately, it’s a question of balance – whether that’s over a yoga ball, or something else entirely!


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