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Blog | 5 Apr 2018

Employee Wellbeing Strategies

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Employee Wellbeing Strategies - Moving Towards An Holistic Approach

This month’s edition of IMPACT Across Asia is anchored in World Health Day, celebrated this Saturday 7 April. As World Health Day approaches, we at Community Business feel it is the perfect time to reflect on the health and wellbeing of employees throughout Asia and explore what organisations are doing to improve wellness amongst their staff. It has been widely documented that employee wellbeing contributes to a healthy bottom line and in Hong Kong, the average yearly cost of health-related absence and presenteeism* per organisation is estimated at HK$5.7M.

At Community Business, we approach employee wellbeing holistically, with our work in the area encompassing work-life integration, physical and mental wellbeing. Over the course of the last 10 years, we have witnessed an evolution in the concept of employee wellness, with the term now widely understood to mean much more than merely putting fruit in the pantry, or offering a yoga class to staff. We now see many leading global organizations implementing well-thought out, sophisticated wellbeing policies and measures that cater to the diverse needs of their staff.

*Presenteeism: the phenomenon of being at work despite health problems or burnout. IIt refers to being physically present at work without having the normal expected productivity.

IMPACT Across Asia

Based on four-country strong data surveying over 10,000 people, AIA Vitality provides employers with an overview of the state of employee wellbeing in their market. Armed with this information, employers can roll out strategies to support healthy living and enhance engagement and productivity. The research, conducted by RAND on behalf of AIA, notes considerable issues with workplace wellness in Asia compared with European counterparts. Of the four countries studied, Hong Kong appears has the least favourable conditions overall.

Notable findings

(Source: The Healthiest Workplace Survey by AIA Vitality, 2017)

  • A lack of physical activity was reported by more than 60% of respondents in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia
  • Self-reported symptoms of depression were reported by up to 12.4% of respondents in Hong Kong.
  • In Hong Kong, 64% of respondents reported at least one aspect of work-related stress, compared to 43% in Singapore and 53% in Malaysia.
  • The respondents lost from 17% (Australia) to 27% (Hong Kong) of their working hours due to absence (2% on average) and presenteeism (22% on average). This is significantly higher than in the UK (12%). This translates to more than 65 days of work time lost per respondent per year in Malaysia and more than 70 days in Hong Kong.
  • 25% of the respondents in Hong Kong show low work engagement, compared to 18% in Malaysia, 17% in Singapore and 13% in Australia.

Hong Kong snapshot, 2017

Singapore snapshot, 2017

Market-specific policies are incredibly important when it comes to wellness. For example, employees in India or China may prioritise pollution as a health risk more than employees in Singapore. APAC employers should keep this in mind when taking a regional approach to wellness and could, for example, budget to include air filters in offices in heavy pollution cities. While having support from senior management is key to rollout and changing attitudes at an organisational level, adopting irrelevant policies may lead to further disengagement from staff.

A Company Driven Approach to Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing and the link with productivity is becoming more and more widely acknowledged by companies. Prioritising employee wellbeing while still maintaining a clear business course might be a tricky balancing act for some; the needs of the employee may appear to run counter to the needs of the business. In an increasingly globalised workplace, for example, employees must juggle international calls at inopportune evenings or weekends. This necessity will likely never be completely eradicated, but reducing the number of international calls that team members are obliged to dial into would allow for greater flexibility and demonstrate a deeper understanding of employee needs.

Community Business firmly believes that investment in employee wellbeing will reap business benefits and ultimately enhance the bottom line. Several organisations have been tracking and recording the link between employee wellbeing and a healthy bottom line, and report encouraging results. Johnson & Johnson noted in 2011 a US$3.92 return on every dollar spent on wellness programmes. Furthermore Unilever's annual ROI study reports that for every €1 spent on employee wellbeing programmes, they see a return of €2.57.

Physical & Emotional Health

With the link between productivity and employee wellbeing in mind, it is useful to outline commendable efforts from employers throughout the world in promoting employee wellbeing. Employers have traditionally chosen an aspect of employee health – whether it be physical, emotional or finding work-life balance – and focused their efforts on improvement in one area. From the physical sphere, Johnson & Johnson has developed a comprehensive wellness offering that includes an extensive online platform, as well as a 7 Minute Workout app, supplying health and fitness options to their wide employee base. Focused on the emotive aspect of health, Google's internal mindfulness and emotional intelligence training programme – Search Inside Yourself - launched in 2007, became so popular that it spawned the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a not-for-profit providing employees with robust wellness, empathy and emotional training to help them improve their own circumstances, and those of their teams.

Incorporating Mental Health

What we hope to see from companies looking to improve their employee wellbeing strategies, are initiatives that cut across the physical, mental and emotional. While honing soft skills such as mindfulness is certainly beneficial; we hope to see companies adopting measures to tackle the hard edge of mental illness amongst staff members as well. In this relatively unchartered area we have seen pioneering efforts from Barclays in the UK. The ‘This is Me’ campaign aims to break down the stigma associated with mental health and encourage employees to feel comfortable sharing their own stories and experiences. There is much interest in rolling out workplace mental health initiatives in Asia, and Community Business is currently compiling research on Mental Health in the Workplace with a focus on the markets of China, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Singapore, to be released later in 2018.

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance, a subject that has long been the focus of our work at Community Business, plays a critical role in all aspects of wellbeing. The negative impacts of workplace stress are well documented and the resulting effects of excessive workload and personnel mismanagement on the health of employees - and as mentioned the ultimate health of the business – should not be forgotten when analysing employee wellbeing programmes. Key factors contributing to workplace stress include:

  • Both excessive and insufficient workloads
  • Poor interpersonal relationships
  • Workplace bullying and ‘blame culture’
  • Mis-management, whether micro-management or weak, ineffective management.

While implementing a health, fitness or mindfulness scheme is certainly a step in the right direction, we must encourage companies to tackle counterproductive culture from the inside. With today’s technology enabling 24-hour connectivity and agile working, employers must clearly articulate their expectations and respect boundaries, and not put their employees under the pressure of being on standby 24x7. Managers can help by proactively communicating with their staff and sharing their own career journey experiences.      

As the global understanding of employee wellbeing has grown to encompass a wide variety of health and wellness markers, we see employers move away from siloed programmes that only target one aspect of employee health. Unilever has rolled out a holistic employee wellness programme, Lamplighter, across 70 countries (as of 2016). Its four-pillared approach addresses physical, mental, emotional and purposeful wellbeing for employees. In the financial sector we see companies like Goldman Sachs rolling out ‘resilience programmes’ which offer more sophisticated tools to treat the causes of workplace stress or mental illness. Having assessed the state of its business following the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs wanted to arm employees with the skills to bounce back in uncertain financial times. As a result, they deepened an already existing employee wellbeing offering to include resilience. Onsite coaches are available to Goldman Sachs employees to help them navigate a whole range of personal and professional issues. It is programmes such as this, designed with the needs of both the business and employees in mind and inherently targeted at specific issues, that will be truly successful in promoting employee wellbeing. 

Being cognisant of the wide range of employee needs is vital to successful employee wellbeing. Of course, not all companies can tackle employee wellbeing to the scale of multi-nationals such as Goldman Sachs or Unilever, however developing meaningful options tailored to the size and needs of your business is possible. As long as interventions are designed to treat the causes rather than the symptoms of workplace distress then employers should start to see an impact on productivity, health and happiness in the workforce.

Author: Emily Moss Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business.