From profit-driven to people-driven: Shifting the focus to employee wellbeing
Evie Lunn speaks with SaysLife founder Jennifer Thamm and Work Mastery Co-founder Dr Christine Fekete about employee wellbeing and how it ties into business resilience.
As the workplace landscape continues to evolve, one thing remains clear: companies that neglect the wellbeing of their employees do so at their own risk. Employee burnout, stress, and low morale can take a toll on productivity, satisfaction, and ultimately the bottom line. But organisations that prioritise employee wellbeing reap the benefits of a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce, where creativity and innovation flourish.
Failure to prioritise employee wellbeing can result in elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. A recent study by Champion Health has shown that 76 per cent of professionals are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress, with 35 per cent of employees reporting that the stress they experience at work is having a negative impact on them. These factors can adversely affect employee productivity, increase absenteeism, and exacerbate staff turnover rates. Another study by Perkbox has found that only 35 per cent of employees rate their productivity as 'strong'. The resultant costs incurred by businesses due to mental health problems, including healthcare expenses and lost productivity, can be considerable. Disengaged employees are costing the UK economy £340 billion annually in lost training and recruitment costs, sick days, and a lack of productivity and innovation. Unhappiness is expensive.
Jennifer Thamm is the founder and CEO of SaysLife, a startup that provides accessible and effective resources to address executive-level stress. Her commitment to finding a methodology to manage holistic wellbeing across the workplace has made her a respected figure in the risk management industry, and her innovative approach to wellbeing has earned her recognition and accolades from industry leaders. Throughout her career, Thamm noticed that people's behavioural issues were often getting in the way of meeting organisational objectives and that there was a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress, which had serious consequences on both a personal and professional level. It is easy to assume that the consequences of failing to prioritise wellbeing at work are limited to decreased productivity and falling short of targets, but employee wellbeing can be a matter of life and death. Thamm has been on the frontlines of loss: her previous CFO and CEO both died by suicide. This strengthened her resolve to address the issue of executive-level stress, and she wanted to devise a concrete way to address and manage people’s stress at work and reduce these stress-related fatalities.
All about the numbers?
Lost productivity as a result of poor mental health is estimated to cost the global economy around USD $1 trillion (GBP £800 billion) per year, indicating that unhappy employees are not just an ethical concern but also a financial one. It is imperative for employers to take employee wellbeing seriously to foster a healthy and productive work environment. This can involve a range of initiatives, from introducing flexible working hours and providing access to counselling services to offering mental health training to all employees. By taking these steps, employers can help reduce stress and anxiety among their workforce and create a more positive and productive workplace culture.
One of the most significant risks to employee wellbeing is poor leadership. When managers fail to lead by example, neglect employee feedback, or overlook issues within the workplace, employees can quickly become disengaged and demotivated. Factors such as long working hours, a lack of breaks, and poor work-life balance can also have negative consequences for individuals’ mental health.
As the co-founder of Work Mastery, Christine Fekete is also a leading figure in the workplace wellbeing industry, providing expertise and resources to help companies create a healthy work environment. A qualified health scientist, Fekete has researched extensively into the effect of psychosocial stress on employees and created Work Mastery as a way to combat these issues and help professionals meet their goals without compromising their welfare. She cites the increased pace of work, rapid technological developments, and general economic uncertainties, magnified by Covid-19, as some of the factors contributing to a pressurised workplace. Fekete puts it simply: "Happy employees work better." She explains that poor mental health restricts cognitive functions that are important for performance, such as concentration, problem-solving skills, short-term memory, and motivation, and might also affect social dimensions important for collaboration and teamwork.
So, what steps can organisations take to improve employee wellbeing and, in turn, boost job performance? A number of solutions were offered by Fekete: "As a healthy work environment is an issue of organisational culture, the starting point is often the clear commitment of the top management that employee health and wellbeing have a high priority." From encouraging open communication to providing opportunities for learning and development, there are a variety of strategies that leaders can adopt to support their employees. Employee retention is most improved, however, by showing how an employee’s work is related to the organisation’s overall purpose. People need to feel that their contribution has meaning, and value alignment is key to a supportive and inspiring work culture.
Investing in leaders is crucial, given that they have a key role in shaping a healthy work environment. For Fekete, training leaders is one of the top strategies to have "quick wins" on employee wellbeing and performance. Thamm similarly notes that a single person has the power to make or break a company, and their actions can have an enormous ripple effect on the company as a whole. On top of this, Thamm offers some solutions of a more personal nature: "What I took away from all the interviews I’ve done and observations I’ve made is that there was never, ever, not one single leader who ever said, ‘I wish I spent less time with my children.’" The importance of a healthy work-life balance cannot be overstated, and prioritising work over pleasure can be hugely counterproductive. These two stereotypically dichotomous factors can and must be combined.
There is a misconception that prioritising employee wellbeing makes it more difficult to meet business objectives. Fekete argues that employee wellbeing is actually: "An important determinant for meeting business objectives and organisational success in the long term [...] Human behaviour drives success, and employees who feel good and report high wellbeing are much better off to help meet business objectives than employees with poor wellbeing." Good mental health is profitable, and bad mental health can be financially crippling. Research from NZIER found that companies can expect an average return between five and twelve times the initial investment in organisational wellbeing, while the WHO estimates that 12 billion working days are lost globally per year because of common mental disorders. Even if a company only cares about financial gain, it would still be in their interest to invest in the health of their employees.
The successful companies of the future will not measure success solely by profit but will take into consideration employee wellbeing and work culture. But it can be difficult to understand how we can bridge the gap between a world where companies are motivated by financial gain and a world where companies prioritise a healthy work environment. Fekete is more optimistic: "I think these two worlds can and must go hand in hand." A shift in mindset is required, as is a commitment to change. By prioritising long-term objectives and viewing employees as essential contributors to the success of the company, businesses can create a culture where profit and a positive work environment are mutually beneficial.
Although financial gain is important, it should be less of a priority than cultivating a healthy workplace. Otherwise, businesses will struggle to attract employees, retain staff, or gain customers. Both Fekete and Thamm believe that the emergence of Gen-Z into the labour market could trigger some large changes, given that younger generations are less likely to accept a culture where money-making is the raison d’être of an organisation. Thamm believes that this younger generation will play a large part in removing technology’s prevalence in daily life and will be able to overcome the mental health issues associated with social media, therefore boosting wellbeing in the workplace as a result. For Fekete, increased investment in employee wellbeing is not a luxury but a necessity: "The good news is that decision-makers in companies are increasingly aware of the importance of employee wellbeing, and forward-looking companies [have] already established specific health promotion programmes."
We are a problem-solving species, and Thamm reminds us that it is in our nature to find solutions to issues that put us at risk: "If there’s anything that binds us together, it’s that we are coded to survive." The world’s permacrisis has created a sense of uncertainty and fear for many employees, making it more crucial than ever for businesses to foster a supportive work culture. By tapping into the natural problem-solving nature of human beings and creating an atmosphere that optimises our cognitive faculties, organisations can unlock the full potential of their employees, driving innovation, productivity, and profitability in equal measure.
Ultimately, both Christine Fekete and Jennifer Thamm are optimistic about the future. The evidence is clear: investing in employee wellbeing is not just the right thing to do; it is also good for business. Appealing to both the altruistic and the avaricious, the prioritisation of employee wellbeing has a myriad of benefits for both the individual and the organisation as a whole. The duo will be speaking at this year's Risk!n event in Zurich on May 25-26. Register here to attend.
We can expect to look forward to a future where businesses are constructed for employees not only to survive but to thrive.