Staying well comes down to much more than the ‘obvious’ physical manifestations of ill health, as Helen Swire discovers

wellness on a budget

Reward’s recent workplace wellbeing research found that an overwhelming majority (84%) of respondents believe that some of their staff sickness absence is actually due to other factors.

With 78% of respondents attributing some absence to care responsibilities, and a similar number (79%) putting it down to disengaged staff, it is clear from this snapshot that there is more at play in UK absence levels than just the common cold keeping people away from work.

“There are five key elements that make up our overall wellbeing,” says Heidi Allan, head of insights and engagement at Neyber. “These are physical health, career, community, social and financial.

“If one of these aspects isn’t quite right, or is causing us concern, it can have a significant impact on us overall. These elements aren’t mutually exclusive and we can’t separate them – if we have issues or are unhappy about one aspect, it has a knock-on effect to the other elements.”

Caring responsibilities

With increasing longevity, employers are being faced with the ‘sandwich generation’: staff with caring responsibilities at both ends of the spectrum. Not only may they have children in school and ageing parents who depend on them, but also older children who, in theory, have flown the nest but still rely on parental support.

While every employee has the right to request flexible working, it doesn’t follow that every employer will have the resources to grant all requests, and with 56% of our survey respondents saying that they consider caring responsibilities outside the workplace to be a ‘health and wellbeing problem’, it’s clear that this is a real and tangible issue.

Rachel Vecht is a director of Educating Matters, which provides support to working parents via their employers. “For working parents, the struggle for work/life balance and parenting effectively has the biggest impact on their wellbeing,” she says.

“If there is frustration, anxiety or stress at home, it cannot help but affect their daily performance at work. Likewise, problems at work will cause a person to be preoccupied and exhausted at home. Parents become less able to meet the needs of their children.”

From the family to finances

Personal finance has been a hot topic for some time now, from the introduction of pension freedoms and the Lifetime ISA, to a crackdown on payday loan companies and increases to the National Living Wage. But despite savings issues becoming a normal subject for discussion at work, it has taken some time for employers to regards finances as a wellbeing topic.

However, the traditional British reticence of talking about money is less of a barrier as the discussion of finance in the workplace becomes more commonplace – and the idea of financial stress as a key wellbeing issue is firmly moving the conversation away from a sole focus on healthcare.

“Until recently, this element was missing from many organisations’ wellbeing strategies,” says Jeanette Makings, head of financial education at Close Brothers. “But a growing body of research is leading an increasing number of organisations to realise that overall wellbeing can’t be achieved without looking after the financial aspect and that there are benefits for the business as well as for individuals in actively targeting it.”

Three-quarters (75%) of our survey respondents said that financial wellbeing worries such as personal debt affect their workforce – and many employers noted the impact this is having on their staff’s wellbeing. Two thirds (66%) cited ‘increased levels of stress’, while 44% mentioned lower productivity, and 37% suggested that personal finance problems have led to absenteeism among their staff.

And while the main focus of workplace saving in recent years has been on saving for retirement, Makings points out that financial stress is not confined to a particular demographic.

She says: “People worry about money at different stages in their lives, like saving for a home, the cost of raising a family, funding relatives in care, where to invest their savings, losing their job, providing a buffer for financial shocks, and so on.”

The root of the problem

But while it’s one thing to understand that other factors might affect wellbeing beyond health problems, it’s another thing entirely to understand where problems lie within their workforce – especially if the problem is around a sensitive issue such as debt.

“In the past, employers have always been reluctant to get involved in their employees’ personal financial circumstances,” says Bruce Moss, strategy director at technology provider eValue.

“But evidence shows that these affect productivity, sickness rates and absenteeism levels, and poor performance here could be indicators that some employees have financial concerns.”

Moss also suggests examining employees’ retirement readiness: a low contribution rate compared to other staff may suggest they are struggling financially.

Beyond this, however, it is crucial for employers to understand what their staff want – and need – in terms of support.

“In designing a financial wellbeing strategy it is not essential to know every detail of their employees’ personal finances and people don’t want that sort of intrusion,” says Makings.

“But there is now enough research to show that this is an issue, that it affects employees at all ages and wealth levels, that it is not just about debt and that many people are receptive to support from their employers and are interested in receiving advice and guidance from them about all financial issues.”

Caring solutions

Similarly, it is not about intrusion but rather about having a full understanding of overall circumstances when it comes to helping those with caring responsibilities: whether that is by offering flexible working, or holding parents’ seminars and establishing networking groups to ensure that they have a supportive system in place.

Educating Matters’ Vecht warns: “When parents don’t have a network of people to share their concerns, struggles and issues, or an extended family support structure and aren’t armed with some effective parenting skills, they can feel very alone.”

However, she adds that there are many ways of supporting parents: “Family networks and the provision of seminars/webinars help to ‘normalise’ many of the common issues parents face and give employees an opportunity to draw on the experiences of their colleagues, so they can support each other emotionally and in very practical ways.”

By establishing what needs employees have beyond the standard or obvious healthcare priorities that deal with the physical side of health, employers can build a business case that encompasses a broader wellbeing strategy.

Whether in the space of financial wellbeing or the issues of family life and life outside the workplace, the key is to create a strategy which all employees, regardless of personal circumstance and need, can understand and use.

“There is a global awakening toward the importance of mental health as well as physical health, and society is becoming more sympathetic towards the emotional wellbeing of others,” says Vecht.

“There is such a multitude of different reasons why employees may benefit from working in a non-traditional way that will help their mental wellbeing, but which ultimately will also enhance their performance at work.”