What’s the secret to happy employees? We ask some of the judges of the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards 2021 to share their insight on where to start.  

The pandemic has forced companies in even the most slow-to-change industries to adopt new ways of working or risk dying out. Remote working and online collaboration have become the norm for millions of people, making digital transformation the lynchpin for business survival. But with these new ways of working comes a slew of other issues that threaten employee wellbeing.

With loneliness, depression and furlough fears sweeping the UK workforce over the last 18 months, organisations are looking to their HR departments to shape workplace wellbeing frameworks for fragmented teams. While a number of blue-chip businesses, such as KPMG and Ernst & Young, have adopted a permanent hybrid working model, including wellbeing initiatives to support virtual teams, small businesses may not know where to start. 

So what’s the secret to happy employees? We ask some of the judges of the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards 2021 to share their insight on where to start. 

Make wellbeing part of your culture

Workplace culture isn’t just how your business appears to the outside world or how your teams function on a day-to-day basis. Rather it’s determined by how your business treats employees and how your employees see the business. An inclusive, robust and open company culture leads to greater employee retention and happier staff. But it’s not that easy to meet that lofty goal when working with a varied group of people with differing motivations and levels of resilience. Burnout now is at an all-time high in the UK, and 12.5 million working days are lost each year due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. 

Simon Scott-Nelson, co-founder of the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards, is no stranger to burnout. His own experience led to a greater appreciation for mental health, leading the way to his founding Wellity Global, a solution for workplace wellbeing.  

”Wellbeing is about culture; it starts from the top and something that can be instilled for next to nothing.”

Simon Scott-Nelson, Wellity Global

Wellity works with companies of all sizes, from SMEs to some of the largest organisations in the world in both the public and private sector. In Simon’s view, the best results for employee wellbeing come from when companies adopt a top-down approach. “Going first with your story creates a safe space where others can come forward to open up about their mental health and wellbeing,” he says. This sets the tone for a more robust work culture where individuals feel supported.

For Gail Weeks, global health and wellbeing programme manager at Nokia, making employees feel safe talking about their mental health at work is invaluable because that’s how they can know that asking for help is really a sign of courage and not failure. “Embed this in your culture and enable leaders and line managers to take the lead in starting the conversations so that they can empower their teams to take action to prioritise their wellbeing,” she says.

But how do you embed wellbeing into your culture? Fujitsu’s wellbeing lead Amanda Hammond says that wellbeing can never be just an add-on. ”It must be integrated throughout the organisation by embedding it into leadership and people management,” she explains. “Wellbeing and inclusion go hand-in-hand. In an inclusive environment, everybody can be completely themselves at work.”

Educate your teams

Not everyone may know about the importance of good mental health and wellbeing, adds Nokia’s Gail Weeks. She says that setting expectations can only start with educating teams on what the signs of concern are when someone is struggling to cope. “Then within our teams, we can explore new ways of working that could improve wellbeing, likesetting boundaries and managing expectations, asking what could be done differently, and are the priorities clear.”

Check in regularly

The key thing is to understand your employees and what they need, adds Fujitsu’s Amanda Hammond. ”The easiest way to do this is to ask, get some ideas, understand the key areas to focus your wellbeing support.” Mental wellbeing is extremely broad, so this data can help you drill down into specifics. 

Looking at information such as your employee assistance program data can be very helpful, adds Amanda. ”If you have absence data, are there any trends that you can see? Or perhaps you have a problem with presenteeism, which is much more common now that many of us are working remotely. Find out how your employees are feeling and then develop a proactive wellbeing plan around that.”

You can’t fix what you don’t know, says Ruari Fairbairns, CEO of One Year No Beer. For Ruari, wellbeing starts with a clear support for changing behaviour. ”Ambivalence is the enemy of changing behaviour,” he says. To change behaviour for the better, he believes that employers need to care, and demonstrate that care by understanding how their teams are doing. 

This is why Ruari uses anonymous weekly or biweekly polls, ’depending on whether we’re going to a turbulent time’.

Using a traffic light system, employees share their state of wellbeing and how the organisation supports them via these polls, along with feedback sessions. ”Following those feedback sessions, we immediately take action. These kinds of things create a real awareness,” he adds.

While cases of burnout may be astronomical right now, so can human compassion, says Jo Dalton, talent expert and founder of JD & Co. ”We have a unique opportunity to rewrite how we treat employees. The companies that take that seriously are going to be the most successful in the future.”

”It’s never been more important than ever to be a nice human and genuinely care about your team.”

Jo Dalton, JD & Co

While there has been a huge push for transparent communication and authentic leadership at the workplace, Jo believes that employees can bring their authentic selves to work when they are given an inclusive and safe space to do so. ”Treating everybody as an individual is so important in the workplace, bringing your true self, your best self to work every day and creating a really inclusive environment,” she says.

So how can you track and measure employee wellbeing?

Dr Sabrina Robinson, wellbeing lead at the Essex County Council is also a Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards judge. She lists key ways to mark progress when you do check in with your teams: 

  1. Establish regular feedback loops and sharebest practice
  2. Improving data collection to learn more about the people and tract trends to measure success
  3. Identify areas for improvement using a scientific approach

Financial support always helps

New data from mental health startup MYNDUP shows that employees are likely to take up therapy, counselling or life coaching services in huge numbers if their employer funds it for them. The data suggests that current company insurance policies and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) still aren’t doing enough to help workers. Looking at 2021 to date, the most popular types of session chosen by MYNDUP users are life & executive coaching – making up 37% of bookings. Counselling – a more traditional type of support – makes up just 29%.

Additionally, work perks have also been documented as a productivity booster. Research from MetLife UK shows that half of UK workers would sacrifice some of their salary for personalised employee benefits. 

Talk of a four-day week and flexible working may not be new, but it took the pandemic for employees and employers to truly re-evaluate work perks. When social venues closed during lockdown, perks like Friday drinks and gym memberships were no longer on the table. When it comes to wellbeing perks, employers began to consider a holistic and functional benefits package for their teams like digital rewards or income protection. These trends may still have room to grow as companies embrace hybrid working. 

Share your wellbeing journey

The seven experts featured in this article are currently on the judging panel of the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards, which recognises workplace wellbeing initiatives established by many employers, service providers and individuals in response to our global wellbeing crisis. Nominations are now open for the 2021 edition of the awards and will close on 24 August 2021. Enter now to share your commitment to workplace wellbeing.