How Does Employee Well-being Fit Into Strategy?

How Does Employee Well-being Fit Into Strategy?
The HR specialists at this roundtable discussion on employee well-being have a clear message: Do not haphazardly launch a new HR tool or a survey on employee well-being without a clear vision of what you aim to achieve and how it fits into the organization's strategy. ‘People need to know how their contributions align with the organization's goals.’

Employee well-being is hot. For the majority of large (international) companies, this theme is in the top five priorities for the coming years. But what does employee well-being mean? How do you measure it? And what do you do with the results? Stefan Duran of insurer elipsLife discusses these questions with two HR professionals and a professor.
For practical experience, two women who earned their spurs in the profession join this roundtable. Gemmie Hermens, director of people & culture Netherlands at facility service provider ISS, won the diversity & inclusion award at the 2023 HR Top 100 election. The audience award in the same year went to Willemijn van der Deijl, chief people officer Netherlands at accounting and advisory firm Forvis Mazars. Tim Huijts brings the scientific perspective. As professor of positive health at work at Maastricht University, he conducts research on positive health in the context of work and learning.

Is positive health the same as well-being? And what role does the employer play in this?
Huijts: ‘Positive health is about health in a very broad sense. It includes well-being, socially, physically and mentally, but also, for example, experiencing meaning in life. My chair provides the opportunity to take a more substantiated look at the interplay between various aspects of health. Moreover, we focus on what people can do. What is a person’s potential and what needs to happen to realize it? There is no doubt that employers have a significant role to play. The question is, what role, and how the employer's responsibility relates to that of the employee. Through my research, I aim to provide more clarity because, at this moment, we simply do not know. A recent overview study we published reveals that there is literally zero scientifically substantiated research on positive health and work—despite the obvious need for it. We also do not know what role positive health plays in interventions to promote employee well-being.’

How do you define the role of employer at Forvis Mazars and ISS? How do you balance the responsibility between employer and employee?
Hermens: ‘When I started at ISS four years ago, the HR policy was little more than a newly signed contract with the occupational health and safety service. The urgency of working on well-being became even more conspicuous during the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out shortly after. While many offices closed, our clients demanded more cleaning and hygiene services. The workload was immense and compounded by our people’s fear of infection. At one point, our absenteeism rate exceeded 20 percent. To get this under control, we, in addition to directly contacting our people, started conducting well-being surveys. These surveys revealed that employees were not always physically ill; many, particularly younger employees, had psychological issues. Financial problems also frequently led to absenteeism. We began offering various interventions in coaching, budget counseling, mental well-being, and corporate social work, but always based on self-management. We are eager to help our people but respect their privacy and want to them decide whether they want to use our interventions. Of course, we do provide advice.
ISS is incredibly diverse, with 140 different cultures and just as many perspectives on illness and the way to recovery. In short, we started working on well-being without a clear vision initially, but it has since become an integral part of our global strategic objectives under the motto: safe, diverse, and inclusive workplaces. Each country has specific projects under this umbrella. In the Netherlands, for example, our focus is on sustainable employability. In that context, we have developed a program for the entire management around the behavioral approach to absenteeism, with an emphasis on abilities. We believe you are ill, but what does it mean for work, how can we help you - both at home and at work - and how can you remain productive? This last point is not insignificant, since we are funded by our clients. It is as simple as that.’
Van der Deijl: ‘As we are a people and knowledge organization, we feel a significant responsibility for both the physical and mental well-being of our employees, with self-direction as starting point. Well-being is one of the five pillars of our cultural program, alongside being a learning organization, role modeling, purpose, and inclusion. We encourage everyone to articulate their own purpose — why do you get out of bed? Why do you find this work exciting? — and connect it with the organization’s overall purpose. The self-regulation we value is reflected in how we organize our cultural program. All teams are represented in working groups that propose improvements based on our engagement survey results.
This survey measures the pillars of our cultural program, including well-being. Our culture team collaborates with HR to facilitate this entire process. We ensure that best practices are shared, and we are careful not to dictate what well-being means, as it can really vary from team to team. Only when the definition comes from the people themselves, does it become genuinely accepted and embedded in employees’ hearts.
It is, also, challenging to give concrete substance to the various elements of a culture. We, along with the teams, formulated desired behaviors to address this. An example of a desired behavior for well-being within an audit is that, prior to and during an audit, the priorities and appropriate allocation of time per activity are considered, so that everyone can participate in thinking about what work suits which person and employees experience participation in working together on the file. This approach makes it tangible. Similarly, with inclusion, for example, employees asked: how do you demonstrate it? One of the formulations was: in a meeting, everyone has a vote. As a leader, ensure you do not give your opinion first but allow everyone to speak and then only conclude with your own opinion.’

How do you ensure that with this attention to self-regulation, it remains an integrated Forvis Mazars?
Van der Deijl: ‘We are not a franchise organization of separate entrepreneurs, so all plans must ultimately lead to the common higher goal: trust through quality. The cultural program therefore explicitly forms part of the strategy.
Huijts: ‘This integrated approach is crucial. It is unwise to randomly launch new tools into the organization, because people unsparingly recognize it as an empty exercise. Policy in this regard must be coherent and consistent, and it must be clear how it fits into the larger interest of the company. It is valuable to also communicate this. In fact, only when that coherence is communicated effectively and is reflected throughout the company, do people see where the organization is heading and how their own contribution can be of significance. That is when you give substantive meaning to the concept of 'self-regulation.' In old HR models it was often about autonomy, which was translated mainly as control over how and when you perform your tasks. Self-regulation goes further and implies that you can shape your talents and what you find important. It implies seeing a role for yourself that aligns with the path of the organization to which you are connected.’

Like Forvis Mazars and ISS, many companies work with surveys to gain a better understanding of employee well-being. How can you effectively measure this?
Huijts: ‘Currently, there is a sort of hunt within organizations for the holy grail of employee well-being measurements. The reasoning apparently is, if we have a solid measurement, the problem is addressed. But one size fits all is not the solution. Embrace the differences within and between organizations and turn them into strengths. Do not ask 100 general questions; focus on what you really want to measure and know and then act on the results. Moreover, involve employees in the questionnaire, the interpretation, and evaluation of the answers and in how to further develop, as to ensure the organization keeps learning. This happens far too infrequently. Mostly, a standard survey gets repeated each year, resulting at best in a report being circulated.
I realize that it is a challenge, especially for small organizations, to conduct such tailored research on their own. That is why in my research, I aim to bring experiences together to gain more insight into what works where, depending on factors like the sector, size, and composition of an organization's population, external factors or the organization's history. The more we know about this, the better we can formulate tailored recommendations. Even then, it will always be no more than a starting point, and organizations will have to keep adapting such research to their reality. Yet, this would already be a step ahead compared to using an existing blueprint or reinventing the wheel.’

Regardless of responsibilities: what role do leaders play in employee well-being and how can you manage that?
Hermens: ‘Our teams are spread across over 200 locations, each with a site manager on the ground. The role of the leader is therefore crucial, both to safeguard physical and psychological safety and to get to know people well and understand their needs. When I joined ISS, the turnover in staff and management was thirty-three percent. That was shocking. During the reflection discussions we initiated, we discovered that employees were not always satisfied with their leaders or the opportunities for advancement. We started by addressing those issues first. We built a new leadership team, invested in training and development, and then developed a leadership program to help leaders effectively utilize tools and prioritize giving employees attention with a capital 'A.'
We conduct an annual ‘meaningful conversation’ with our employees on-site, focusing particularly on their development needs and well-being.  The role of the leader is now a significant topic in our satisfaction surveys. Do people feel supported? Is their role clear? We also make extensive use of data; I even have a specialist dedicated to this on my team. We do research into issues like the top 10 reasons for absenteeism and turnover. We can then trace this back to locations, leaders, and outcomes – and take targeted action. This 'people data' is part of the data warehouse that also houses all business information. Everything is interconnected. This demonstrates that HR policy is an important and integral part of the strategy. We now have a turnover rate of 12 to 13 percent in staff and management and 16 to 17 percent among service employees, which is very low for our industry. I'm quite proud of that.’

Van der Deijl: ‘At our company, giving attention with a capital 'A' is the 'meaningful conversation' between employee and leader. If we manage to organize these effectively, we are essentially on track. A meaningful conversation often starts with feedback on content but especially on behavior – including towards leaders. It can be challenging for leaders to be open to feedback. Ideally, we want it to become instinctive to ask: do you have any feedback for me? How is your well-being? What can I do better to support your development? That requires vulnerability. Conversely, it is also daunting for employees: try commenting on someone's leadership style. To overcome this hurdle, employees themselves devised a simple tool to assist. During evaluation meetings, we now conduct a small survey where the employee rates the leader on the spot – on a scale of one to ten – and the leader fills out the number he or she expects to receive. Then we compare the results. If the leader expects a five for 'providing sufficient attention,' for example, but receives a three, it gives room for discussion. This contributes to well-being. We also offer coaching with a strong focus on well-being.’
Huijts: ‘Your stories sound like a textbook example of how to shape positive health policies, while continuously learning as an organization. However, the prerequisites are important.
You can only have that 'meaningful conversation' in a context where the employee feels safe to do so. Creating that safety is undoubtedly the responsibility of leaders, but how do you do that effectively, especially in an organization with a history of psychological insecurity? Clear communication is a must. To what extent can data from surveys be traced back to individual employees? What about privacy when someone utilizes services like company counseling or offered debt relief programs? Transparency on these matters is essential.’

This article was published in Management Scope 06 2024.

This article was last changed on 25-06-2024