14 Sep 2011
By Nicola Crichton, London South Bank University
THE CONCEPT of improving health and wellbeing in the workplace is receiving increasing attention from employers globally, but that hasn't always been the case. The financially driven owners of mills and workhouses in the industrial revolution didn't care much for staff wellbeing, save some philanthropic exceptions. For most of them their workers were a commodity to be used and replaced like a piece of machinery when they had served their purpose.
But the days of finance people viewing employees merely as commodities appears to be officially over. Increasingly, employee wellbeing is a concern that goes beyond the HR department onto the agenda of the FD. Recent research conducted by the global employee health solutions company vielife and London South Bank University (LSBU), found that senior finance staff in the UK's largest organisations show equal if not more concern over employee health and wellness than their HR peers do.
There appears to be a clear belief among senior finance people that a healthy P&L and balance sheet is inextricably linked to healthier, happier workers. While such a link may seem obvious, the level of resonance between these two factors is quite surprising. In vielife's research, 44% of finance directors said that employee health and wellness was a strategic priority compared with 38% of HR directors.
More finance people put strategic importance behind this than those directly responsible for employee care and management: 92% of finance respondents had also discussed it at board level compared with 82% of HR. Finance respondents also showed far greater belief that employment issues generally – including health and wellbeing – impacted future organisational performance.
The evidence that senior finance people are frequently prioritising employee wellbeing investments also indicates there is a clear understanding of the ROI that can be achieved. In fact, 58% of all those surveyed thought health and wellness investments yielded returns in productivity, but both finance and HR frequently underestimated the returns that are possible.
The majority estimated these returns at between £1 and £5 for every £1 spent on wellbeing, which is less than a number of published studies, including an estimate of more than £6 to £1 made by an independent study by the Institute of Health & Productivity Management (IHPM), Harvard Medical School and Unilever.
With a fundamental belief that wellbeing can lead to performance improvements and achieve ROI, finance directors have a clear role in shaping their organisations' health agendas alongside HR, but doing so is not without obstacles. The biggest of those appears to be access to data and ability to measure baseline performance. More finance people consider the lack of this data on employee health a barrier – 30% compared with just 10% of HR. Meanwhile, 59% think it is difficult to measure the benefits of investing in their employees' health in addition to this.
An understanding of the health status, priorities and motivations of employees at the outset of any investment in health and wellbeing is critical. Otherwise, the ability to decide what the right investments are becomes based on unfounded theories or fashions rather than hard facts. The problem of lacking data can be exacerbated in large organisations where workforces are distributed, may speak many different languages and have varied cultural attitudes to health.
Finance also recognised that the internet plays a key role in successfully engaging employees in health and wellbeing measurement. Online health risk assessments (HRAs) can be delivered via the web in multiple languages, reaching dispersed workforces and providing a private means for employees to document and self-assess their health.
This can improve the take-up of wellbeing schemes and accelerate the collection of baseline data that is essential in analysing the health issues having greatest impact on workplace performance. Indeed, according to the vielife-LSBU research, delivering employee health programmes online and in private was deemed important by significantly more finance people than HR people.
Of course, looking back a century it wasn't all employers that failed to realise the value of employee wellbeing. Joseph Rowntree and William Lever, for example, invested heavily in improving the quality of life for their workers. While their and others' motivations were largely philanthropic, boardrooms today are following suit, realising that the link between personally perceived good health and organisational performance is much more than incidental or fractional.
For FDs, the motivations are simple. Being on top of your game at work increases your employees' productivity, accuracy, persistency, consistency and many other critical factors that make a difference between doing a good job and a great job. While human corporate performance factors such as wellbeing can be harder to measure and manage than those traditionally within the realm of finance, FDs are alert to the fact that they can make all the difference in ensuring a healthy P&L.
Nicola Crichton is a professor of statistics in the faculty of health and social care at London South Bank University
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