The Strategic Importance of Employee Well-being

The Strategic Importance of Employee Well-being
Employers’ responsibility for the well-being of employees is increasing, but conversely, employees must also contribute to the ‘well-being’ of an organization. Companies that manage to align their purpose with that of their employees hold the key to future success, according to Stefan Duran of the insurer elipsLife.

Healthy, productive, and motivated employees form the cornerstone of competitiveness and business success which makes it no surprise that employee well-being has become one of the hot topics in the boardroom. But what exactly falls under the broad umbrella of ‘employee well-being?’ And what is the employer’s role? To gain a better understanding, I, over recent months, engaged with experts and executives from major corporations.
One key insight: While society is apparently becoming more individualistic, employees increasingly expect support from employers in promoting their well-being – even on the esoteric level of finding purpose and happiness. This on the face of it seems contradictory but may be related. Are organizations expected to fill the gap left by the decline of other social institutions, such as political parties, unions, and churches?

Working on physical safety
Broadly speaking, there are four levels in the employer’s role in promoting employee well-being. At the most basic level, it is about ensuring a physically safe work environment. Thanks in part to modern technology, much progress can yet be achieved in this area. According to Esmé Valk, CHRO of Royal Schiphol Group, her company is tackling physical strain in baggage handling with CO-BROs, collaborative robots which assist with lifting diverse types of baggage. Gitte Kristiansen, CEO of consulting firm Insurance at Heart, collaborated with Danish company Precure to develop an AI-based smart vest. The vests are equipped with sensors that collect data on body movement and posture, providing users with specific instructions and tips to improve their posture, resulting in significantly reduced absenteeism.
In addition to investing in a safe work environment, employers increasingly focus on prevention by promoting healthy practices, from yoga sessions to group sports activities. Also noteworthy is the approach of Belgian company Royal Doctors. Founder Joris Vanvinckenroye told me how his healthcare company offers remote second opinions and detects employees’ health risks at an early stage, enabling treatment before the employee becomes unable to work.

Focus on mental Well-being
At the next level of well-being, the employer gives attention to the mental well-being of employees. In the psychologically demanding professions of police officers, firefighters, teachers, doctors and nurses, specifically, tremendous strides have been made in recent decades. The writer’s father worked in law enforcement his entire life. Years ago, post-event care after major incidents was certainly not the norm. Officers were expected to be tough and to soon get back to the normal routine. Nowadays, after impactful events, (rightfully so) social workers are available to help officers process what they have experienced. At the same time, caring for mental well-being encompasses more than addressing issues arising from the nature of people’s work. Creating a culture where work and personal life can be effectively balanced, also for young parents or caregivers, contributes to mental well-being too.

Promoting psychological safety
More recently, offering psychological safety has emerged as another level in addressing well-being. Employees can only utilize their skills fully when they experience psychological safety, are able to give feedback openly and are not immediately penalized when they report situations where they feel unsafe. The rise of the #MeToo movement shed light on how often unwanted behavior in the workplace occurs and how significant for all involved the impact is. Fortunately, employers increasingly strive to prevent unwanted behavior in the workplace and to sanction it when it does occur.
Psychological safety also intersects with diversity and inclusion. If people cannot be themselves at work, they will not feel safe. Even small interventions can strengthen inclusivity. For example, accounting firm Forvis Mazars got employees to compile a list of inclusive behaviors, says Chief People Officer Willemijn van der Deijl. An example: ‘In a meeting, everyone has a voice. So, as a leader, ensure that you do not give your opinion first. Instead, let everyone speak and only then present your opinion.’ How simple can it be.

Promoting happiness
The fourth level of employee well-being, investing in employee happiness, is not widespread practice yet, although due partly to the war for talent, interest is increasing. Especially young employees demand much from employers here, giving employers a responsibility which blurs the line between work and personal life. It is difficult to be happy at work and unhappy at home, or vice versa. Scientific research proofs that attention to this often perceived as soft aspect of well-being is indeed meaningful. Happy employees stay with organizations longer, are more productive and resilient, and are less likely to fall ill. Thus, says happiness professor Patrick van Hees, it is indeed of benefit to employers to invest in employees’ happiness. With his CHAP test (Cambridge Happiness Profiler), he can prepare a personal report on someone’s happiness status, the personal circumstances influencing it and the possible adjustments to increase that employee’s happiness. Interestingly, generic tertiary employment benefits such as company outings, Christmas hampers and a cozy coffee corner’s contribution is relatively negligible. Far more important is for people to gain insight into what makes them intrinsically happy, for example through coaching sessions offered by the employer.

Purpose as a Key Concept
Business success is virtually impossible if the health and well-being of employees are ignored or neglected, hence, according to the interviewees for this dossier, attention to employee well-being should form an integral part of the corporate strategy. When Gemmie Hermens joined facility services provider ISS four years ago as director of people & culture, the HR policy consisted of little more than a contract with the occupational health service. She, together with the rest of the new leadership team, took decisive action, and well-being now forms an integral part globally under the motto: Safe, diverse and inclusive workplaces.
The theme of aligning company strategy with purpose runs like a common thread through all the interviews. Employees no longer want to commit to a company that operates solely ‘for the numbers,’ but are looking for an inspiring purpose to dedicate themselves to. It is no coincidence that organizations increasingly highlight their societal mission in their recruitment campaigns. ‘Focus on purpose,’ Madeline Dessing, HR Director of UWV, advises. ‘Make it clear that employees can make an impact when joining your organization.’
The benefits agency has since last year been successful in recruiting staff with the recruitment campaign Working for UWV. Then you work for all of us.

Companies with a clear mission and purpose have enormous appeal in today’s world. It is, however, not enough for employees to feel drawn to the purpose, they also need to know what their contribution to the bigger picture can be, says Tim Huijts, Professor of Positive Health at Work. People need, he argues, to ‘see a role for themselves that is consistent with the path of the organization to which they are connected.’
This means there needs to be a level of reciprocity. In other words, the responsibility of employers for the well-being of employees is increasing, but vice versa, employees should also contribute to the ‘well-being’ of an organization. Or in the words of Willemijn van der Deijl of Mazars: ‘We are not a franchise organization of separate entrepreneurs, our actions must ultimately, jointly, lead to the common higher purpose.’
In fact, without a guiding framework, employees can lose their sense of direction, can lose focus of their role and, as a result, become less satisfied. The purpose must also measure up to the reality of the work environment, or employees who arrived filled with enthusiasm may soon leave disillusioned. Organizations that manage to align their purpose with that of their employees will hold the key to future success.

This essay was published in Management Scope 06 2024.