Wellness works for all
Employers are increasingly finding that catering to workforce wellbeing pays dividends, writes Julia Stirling
WHEN James Wilson now takes his 20-month-old son, Archie, to childcare he feels a lot less stressed. They simply catch a bus for a five-minute ride into Sydney’s CBD, where he works as Citi’s assistant vice-president of equities technology. He leaves Archie at Citi’s recently opened childcare centre and walks to his office, two minutes away.
Previously, Wilson drove for half an hour to his mother-in-law’s house, where he dropped Archie off and then caught a train to work.
‘‘ There is no battling traffic, it’s certainly much more relaxed, and we feel more like a family on those days,’’ says Wilson. He and his wife, who also works in the CBD, meet at the centre after work to pick up Archie and walk him home in his pram.
Child care is difficult for many working parents, and many large organisations are providing childcare centres to meet staff expectations for work/life balance. Finding a balance affects employees’ sense of wellbeing, and employee health and wellness has become a strong focus for companies competing to attract and keep talent in a tight labour market.
A ‘‘ wellness program’’ is an umbrella term to describe diverse workplace strategies, services and programs contributing to employees’ mental and physical health. These programs have been shown to reduce employee stress, turnover, absenteeism, and to improve employee morale and loyalty.
Apart from providing childcare services, Citi’s wellness approach includes: An on-site gym with trainers, Policies aimed at improving the comfort and safety of the workplace during pregnancy,
A confidential and independent counselling service for any employee experiencing a work or personal issue, Sleep apnoea screening, Dining and leisure benefits, Flu vaccine or aromatherapy alternative, Social club, Access to an intranet portal inviting them them to submit a flexible work arrangement, Fruit at work program, Breastfeeding/expressing facilities, and A four-day onsite biennial health and wellbeing event.
‘‘ I have definitely noticed over the past three years that there’s a growing awareness of the importance and value in a consistent wellness program,’’ says Michael Stone, Managing Director of Holistic Services Group (HSG).
‘‘ More and more CEOs and senior managers who highly value their staff are looking to embrace an organisational culture of employee happiness and wellbeing. For those managers who are yet to embrace such ideals, a tight labour market is teaching them the hard way,’’ he says. Holistic Services Group provides an array of services to counteract stress in the workplace and improve emotional and physical health. Experts agree, however, that organisations can have the best policies but they are of little consequence if they stay in the binder — not implemented by unsympathetic managers.
‘‘ It can be difficult to measure how workplace wellness affects the bottom line, but smart managers understand that there is value in ‘ intangible assets’ such as a happy, satisfied workforce. Statistics show that organisations who highly value the importance of their employees are rewarded through greater financial performance. Thus, managers who ensure an optimal workplace environment see high productivity growth,’’ says Stone.
Citi’s organisation development manager, Sheree Wells says, ‘‘ if role model, senior people aren’t demonstrating that it’s actually okay to take advantage of those policies, and to work from home once a week, or leave the office at two o’clock every afternoon to pick up the kids — if nobody is actually executing against it — then it’s not okay. What will make a difference will be if the managers take advantage of the offerings.’’
Managers are critical change agents within a business from a cultural change point of view, says Wells.
‘‘ I’ve made it okay for my team. I’ll say to them, ‘ it’s 11.15, there’s a class happening in the gym, it starts at 11.30, if anyone is looking for me — that’s where I’ll be’. I think that’s promoting good behaviour,’’ she says.
Wells goes to the gym primarily for fitness, strength and to manage stress. She originally went to the gym at the end of a day, but found before or during work gave her better results. It not only elevated her mood, but prompted more perspective, relaxed and creative outlooks.
‘‘ The workplace and how work is organised is recognised as a very important determinant of people’s health — not just mental health, although I think that is particularly influential for mental health, but also for physical health,’’ says Lyndall Strazdins, Research Fellow, at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at Australian National University, Canberra.
Strazdins agrees wellness programs are very important, but says there are many other things workplaces can do to give their employees better health outcomes. ‘‘ Job insecurity is emerging as a strong predictor of poor mental health, so employment practices that minimise insecurity are likely to benefit the mental health of their employees,’’ she says.
A recent report, Workplace Stress in Victoria, put out by VicHealth says many national and international studies have linked psychological ill health to a range of psychosocial working conditions, including management style, work overload and pressure, lack of job control and unclear work roles.
The report says: ‘‘ In the UK, stress-related disorders have been estimated to account for up to 60 per cent of absenteeism. In contrast, absence rates are often lower in organisations where people feel they have higher control over their work.’’
Says Strazdins, ‘‘ I think there has been a shift now to a ‘ just-in-time’ approach to employees where people are given very short-term contracts without a kind of core funding base for their salaries. They may have their contracts renewed, they may not — there is a lot of uncertainty for the continuation of that job.’’
That gives organisations less financial commitment to their employee, but Strazdins says it also means employees are unable to predict their job future, and consequently their financial future. ‘‘ That not only has mental health consequences for the employees — that’s linked to increased anxiety and at times depression — it is going to affect their productivity. So there is actually a kind of unanticipated side effect for the organisation’s outcomes. They may think they are saving money in terms of not carrying core funding for that person, but there may actually be a down side to that,’’ she says.
Another key stress in the workplace is how people communicate, says Michael Stone.
‘‘ Communication has been reduced to emails, even if our colleague is sitting right next to us. As social beings, people need to connect with others, and the nature of our modern workplaces sometimes discourages personal communication, placing greater stress on staff.
‘‘ Another cause of stress is a person being in a place they don’t want to be, and doing something they don’t want to be doing — imagine sitting next to this person,’’ says Stone. But are wellness programs expensive? ‘‘ Consider staff absenteeism, poor productivity, performance sabotage, employee turnover, talent shortage, compensation claims — its inexpensive,’’ says Victor Sultas, HSG’s wellbeing services director.
‘‘ Generally, organisational turnover costs per person are between 90 and 2000 per cent of a person’s annual salary. So if you consider the benefits, especially in our tight job market, wellness programs more than pay for themselves,’’ says Stone.
Strazdins stresses the need to make health and wellbeing in the workplace a top priority for organisations. ‘‘ This is urgent with an ageing workforce. If we have work practices that don’t support health, then we are effectively taking people out of the workforce that could be working. That is the opposite of what this country has to do to keep going in the current economic and demographic changes. If we can make work as health supportive as possible, then we can keep people in the workplace. It will motivate them to work longer, and we will maximise our participation,’’ she says.
Cutting edge: Citi’s Sheree Wells in the office gym