Jenny Perkins: How can HR promote wellbeing at work?

A focus on wellbeing at work can have a hugely positive impact on your organisation. HR can ensure that policies and procedures are in place to support this. Even more importantly, HR can also help to get leaders across the business on board to create a culture of wellbeing that leads to long-term, sustainable benefits.

What makes wellbeing work

If you want to create a genuine culture of wellbeing across your business, you need to engage your leaders. All leaders can be role models for wellbeing, and line managers have a particularly important role to play in ensuring that wellbeing is valued and promoted across the business. HR is ideally positioned to engage leaders and create cultural change. Let’s look at what wellbeing is, why it matters, and what HR can do encourage a holistic approach.

What is wellbeing, and why does it matter?

Wellbeing at work is about more than our physical and mental health – it is also concerned with how we feel about our jobs, our working relationships, and our working environment.

Boosting wellbeing across your organisation can result in benefits such as reduced absence, improved retention, increased productivity, and a strong employer brand.

Wellbeing in an age of uncertainty

The pressure for organisations to cope with challenges such as political upheaval and digital disruption means that many people have gone into survival mode. Employees may feel under pressure to do ‘more for less’. This can have a negative impact on wellbeing and on overall organisational culture.

The importance of mental health awareness

Mental health issues have a significant impact on wellbeing at work. One in four of us are affected by mental health issues during our lives. There is still a lot of misunderstanding in this area. However, there is also an increasing awareness which is helping to break the silence around mental health.

Employment law and HR policies

Employment law has moved beyond traditional ‘health and safety’. Of course, it’s important to minimise physical hazards, but many employers also have an increasing focus on creating workplaces that support overall good health and wellbeing.

Many HR policies can influence wellbeing at work. For example, flexible working can give employees more control over when and where they work, helping to create a better work/life balance. Initiatives such as free gym membership and free fruit in the office can be very valuable. Their value is enhanced if they form part of a genuine culture of care where wellbeing is prioritised in all aspects of working life. While wellbeing policies and programmes can bring many benefits, they will only create real impact if the overall organisational culture is supportive and inclusive.

The importance of culture

The CIPD’s 2019 Health and Wellbeing Report highlighted a very interesting issue. Overall levels of absenteeism in the UK have dropped, which would appear to be good news. However, the CIPD’s survey uncovered an interesting story behind this headline news. The research uncovered a rising culture of ‘presenteeism’ in UK workplaces, with most organisations doing nothing to discourage this unhealthy behaviour. Emerging evidence demonstrates that presenteeism is potentially more harmful for individuals and organisations than sickness absence. In addition, many organisations are experiencing increased ‘leaveism’, which is when employees take holiday to cover periods of illness. The combination of presenteeism and leaveism contribute to an artificial drop in absence levels, masking deeper-seated cultural issues that undermine health and wellbeing.

How HR can create a culture of wellbeing

HR is well placed to address the range of factors that can influence wellbeing at work. HR specialists can of course ensure that there are wellbeing policies and programmes in place. They can also offer wider skills programmes to help all employees build the ability to prioritise tasks and manage time. When employees feel stressed out or overloaded, it’s likely that their resilience may be compromised. By identifying the causes of stress, people can develop techniques to cope. Skills such as positive thinking, mindfulness and visualisation can all build confidence and self-mastery.

HR can also ensure that leaders are skilled at identifying issues at an early stage and that they know how to provide appropriate support, whether that is an informal chat, a referral to a counsellor, or a period of leave.

Supporting leaders to create cultural change

HR can encourage a more holistic approach to wellbeing by catalysing cultural change. The behaviour of leaders is critical to achieving this kind of change. HR can influence behaviour through values-based learning and development programmes that focus on openness, collaboration and building trust. Business simulations and role play can help leaders to understand and address wellbeing issues, so they are better prepared to deal with them when they arise in real life. Coaching can help to overcome any particular areas of concern.

Role models for wellbeing

Employees need to believe that leaders actually care about their wellbeing. Many HR departments are very good at communicating wellbeing programmes and signposting sources of support. The effectiveness of these programmes will be increased if leaders across the organisation consistently demonstrate concern and are themselves role models for positive wellbeing. If leaders are constantly working long hours, working when ill, and not taking all their holiday entitlement, the people they lead may feel they have to do the same. HR can act as an objective advisor to leaders, helping to support them and the people they lead. At times this can be very challenging and require HR specialists to develop their own resilience. A focus on wellbeing across the HR function helps to highlight its importance to others. After all, HR people are powerful role models too.





Jenny is head of engagement at international leadership consultancy Cirrus. She has been UK CEO for a global PLC, head of development for a major Emirati company in Abu Dhabi, an executive board member of Investors in People, and am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.