In the past few years, the term ‘employee wellbeing’ has become a phrase almost as ubiquitous as ‘Brexit’! (I had to, didn’t I?!)
A significant amount of both spoken and written word has been expended trying to define exactly what employee wellbeing is, why it is important and how it can be improved, and while many employers are already investing in or are actively looking at wellbeing benefits, there are still some to whom the whole concept of wellbeing is a mystery.
So, when it comes to the idea of making wellbeing compulsory, you can only look higher up the chain and, for its part, the UK Government, through various agencies, is actively encouraging businesses to invest in employee wellbeing and from the three examples below you can understand why.
UK productivity is near the bottom of the G7 league table with only Japan and Canada having lower GDP per hour rates . Improving employee wellbeing will have an impact on absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover – happy, healthy employees should be more productive and help the UK improve its standing in the table.
Investment in employee wellbeing will help to decrease the incidence of illness within the working population and help reduce costs reflected in the NHS budget. For example, employees can be encouraged to take control and manage issues such as alcohol consumption, weight and activity levels, which can directly impact on the prevalence of liver disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc.
Similarly, keeping employees healthy will also impact welfare benefits budgets as healthy, employees are less likely to require sick-pay or long-term disability benefits. Remember, in the Thriving at Work (Stevenson/Farmer October 2017) report it was estimated 300,000 people lose their job each year due long-term mental health issues – consider the impact this has on welfare benefits and how much the Government could save if this figure could be reduced.
So, with these obvious economic and social benefits, could a future UK Government ever make employee wellbeing compulsory?
If we take the template of workplace pensions, where using automatic enrolment legislation effectively ‘privatised’ retirement income through compulsory pension schemes, then it’s not unforeseeable that a future administration might look to implement mandatory employee health and wellbeing. But what form might this take?
Personally, I don’t foresee compulsory ‘auto-enrolled’ company health insurance being rolled out any time soon. Although it could have a dramatic impact on NHS budgets, there isn’t the political will nor enough private heath provision in the UK right now. Additionally, the cost to employers would, potentially, be even more significant than automatic enrolment.
So, while I can’t see the Government forcing companies to fund health insurance, I think they may look to use existing health and safety regulations to promote wellbeing. In fact, several larger UK employers – Thames Water, Royal Mail and others are already taking the lead in this area, using existing health and safety that already covers areas such as workplace stress and mental health provisions, alongside physical health and risk aspects.
In fact, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a set of management standards that cover six key areas of work design. If these are not properly monitored, they could result in poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates.
- demands: issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
- control: how much say the employee has in the way they do their work
- support: the facilities provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues to the employee
- relationships: promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour (e.g. bullying)
- role: do employees understand their role within the organisation? Does the company ensure there aren’t conflicting roles?
- change: how change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation
Reading through these standards, it’s easy to see how they are designed with employee wellbeing in mind. So, to an extent, employee wellbeing is already ‘compulsory’ via the HSE. However, what these standards do not provide is the all-important ‘how’ – how are these improvements in wellbeing achieved? What are the processes/services that would improve and maintain standards of employee wellbeing?
Generally, Government policy in most areas follows a similar template – a standard to achieve, and guidance provided, with the detail on how to meet the standard left to industry/professions to sort for themselves. When it comes to employee wellbeing, I think this situation is likely to persist, too (in the short term, at least) with employers being encouraged to improve wellbeing, but with no specific compulsory regulations/legislation to enforce it.