Is the social aspect of well-being at work a relatively recent issue?

Is the social aspect of wellbeing at work a relatively recent issue?

No, the Victorians got there first


The roots of wellbeing at work go back as far as Victorian times, when industrialists such as William Lever, Joseph Rowntree and John and George Cadbury recognised that employees weren’t units of production but people. They knew that providing them with not just good working conditions but even housing and education for their children would help them flourish which would be good for business. As Lever said ‘If we leave the human factor out of our business calculations, we shall fail every time.’  That observation holds true today just as much as it did then.


Today, the stresses and strains of people’s non-working lives, and the fact that an employer takes on an employees’ physical, emotional and psychological baggage as well as their skills and experience, means an employee’s all-round wellbeing is increasingly important for employers.


Wellbeing is a complex blend of the physical, psychological, social and relationship aspects of employees’ working lives. It includes their working environment and how they get on with their colleagues. Is the work/life balance right? Do people feel they are respected and that they are treated fairly?  What about the ‘hygiene factors’ of life? If these could be made easier –e.g. not having to wait weeks to get a doctor’s appointment or being able to work at home if the childminder is off sick – employees would be less distracted and more able to focus on work. One best-in-class organisation we work with has set up an onsite medical centre which not only enables employees to get quicker and longer appointments than they would with the NHS but has been literally life-saving by spotting cancer early. This in itself justified the investment required in setting it up – ably supported by the quantitative results from across the business.


Managers also have a big role to play in employees’ wellbeing as they are responsible for the creating the kind of environment people will enjoy working in and where they can flourish, both personally and professionally. That’s a lot to ask and many managers understandably fall short on the ‘people’ aspect of their roles. This can make life for employees difficult or even unbearable leading to people leaving and the inevitable impact this has on the business. It’s no surprise that top performing organisations have better managers. Our research shows there’s a difference of 61 percentage points between the quality of management in the top 10 best-in-class organisations (those recognised as Best Workplaces) and the bottom 10 unranked organisations. This naturally leads to poor engagement levels amongst employees – a corresponding gap of 42 percentage points.


And what of the different generations in the workforce? There are now four,from Millenials to Baby Boomers, all with different expectations and different life stages that employers need to consider if their wellbeing plans are to be effective. Here one size certainly does not fit all.


The economic – and personal –cost of the psychological aspects of work is growing. According to the Mental Health Federation, 13.3 million working days are lost each year due to mental health issues, stress being a major one. The impact of this on the economy is recognised at Government leveland has led to a number of initiatives to help businessesunderstand and improve employees’ working lives. As well as the impact on productivity, this should have a knock-on effect on society through increased employment, reduction in welfare payments and people’s overall ‘happiness’ levels, which the government is also keen to measure.


Finally, the importance of wellbeing to the financial performance of a business is increasinglyrecognised by investors, who are looking at wellness and engagement levels as leading indicators of performance. We know from our own research how organisations can profit when they have effective wellbeing programmes. One organisation, a recruitment specialist, saw revenues more than double just five years after introducing a radical and innovative wellbeing programme. Staff turnover levels are down too, to a low of 16.7% in 2014 in an industry where the average is estimated at between 25% and 35%. Overall, when we compare top performing organisations – those who were ranked as Best Workplaces in 2015 – with those who were unranked, we see a difference of 20 percentage points in key areas such as work/life balance and employees’ working environment.


The desire of Victorian industrialists like Lever, Rowntree and the Cadbury brothers to improve their workers’ lives stemmed from their religious and philanthropic upbringing – it was the social mission which was the driver, not the profit. Fast forward a few hundred years to todayand the notion of a social mission driving a commercialorganisation can be found in many organisations including Great Place to Work®.  Our social mission is to help improve society by improving people’s lives at work. And the more that recognises and addressesthe physical, psychological, emotional and social needs of employees the better.



Charles Fair is Head of Consultancy at employee research consultancy Great Place to Work®.


Charles will be speaking at the Wellbeing at Work event at the Cavendish Centre, London, on 15th October.



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