Gimmicks & guess work: Why do wellbeing programmes fail to help staff?

Without data, the risks to your people are immeasurable. In the first of a series of interviews with champions of workplace wellbeing, Dr Carolyn Lorian calls for an evidence-based approach to address the growing crisis.

Until organisations can define and measure wellbeing, they will find it almost impossible to implement truly successful support strategies. This should start with senior leadership in any business who are tasked with the difficult job of defining what wellbeing means for their staff and then applying the necessary roles and responsibilities and measurement.

Employee wellbeing can’t just be a case of token gestures. Even in organisations with thousands of staff, each one of those employees with wellbeing needs is an individual – a person with their own unique work stress, health niggles, and personal life.

So how do you create successful employee wellbeing programmes that genuinely meet the individual needs of thousands of people and know that they’re working? The answer, as Dr Carolyn Lorian, Head of Clinical Transformation at SilverCloud Health explains, is data, data, data…

Do you think there is a disconnect between the boardroom, HR, and frontline staff regarding wellbeing?

"Most certainly. I assume we’re all aware of the mental health crisis that the pandemic has brought on. We’re seeing it not only impact the number of people reporting negative effects on their mental health and stress levels, but we’re also seeing it translate into dissatisfaction with their employers through the so-called ‘great resignation’ and rising levels of absenteeism, presenteeism, and leavism.

"Whilst organisations may be increasing their spend in this area and planning to increase mental health resources, we are seeing a discrepancy with how supported employees really feel and the real benefit they are receiving from the suite of initiatives provided. Employees expect things that actually work, not token efforts and band-aid solutions. For example, in a new survey, McKinsey found that only 1 in 6 employees feel supported despite the fact 96% of companies took steps to increase the availability of mental health resources. To quote Forbes: ‘Mental health days won’t solve the great resignation.’

"HR teams often struggle to understand what works and what doesn’t – in truth, there is very little out there to help them discern what’s a gimmick versus the real deal. There is huge variability with the effectiveness of mental health and wellbeing offerings across employers – so HR put in place approaches and then wait to see if there is a positive impact or not.

"Part of this disconnect comes from the fact that very few organisations are properly measuring wellbeing and reporting back on it (to their board or externally) – so it’s not all that surprising that the boardroom and HR aren’t always connected to how their front-line staff really feel. Only 20% of organisations use KPIs to measure and report on the impact of workplace mental health strategies, according to the CCLA Corporate Mental Health 2021 Pilot Benchmark Report."

What stops organisations implementing a successful employee wellbeing programme?

"I wish there was a silver bullet, but unfortunately not! This is a complex topic and often it comes down to many factors – many organisations may have a comprehensive strategy in place, but then struggle to put this into action because they do not factor in the elements of, for example, change management associated with implementing a new approach to wellbeing.

"Sometimes it’s the fact that mental health and wellbeing are not owned as a priority at the most senior levels of the organisation. Is leadership really bought into it? Who is sponsoring it? Is it on the board level agenda? It can also come down to cross-organisational buy-in – for instance, does every person across the organisation know their role in building a culture of wellbeing?

"When I think about the maturity of an organisation’s approach to wellbeing I think about a few key factors:

  • To what degree is there leadership buy-in? Where does decision-making sit, and at what level of seniority in the organisation?
  • To what degree does the programme provide support for people across the mental wellbeing spectrum, from those who are well and want to flourish to those who are experiencing clinical mental health challenges?
  • To what degree is the programme embedded into the employee experience? Is it just a bolt-on programme or benefits offering, or is it baked into every step of the employee lifecycle?
  • To what degree is it data- and insights-driven?

"For me personally, I believe any employee wellbeing programme needs to be 100% data and insights driven. If it’s not – for instance, if we just provide a menu of benefits and options for people to look after themselves – we’re taking a stab in the dark about what support our people need. We’re also potentially not addressing the root cause of people’s struggles. It’s a bit like taking a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to our health – we wouldn’t go and prescribe someone a medication that ‘usually works’ without understanding if they actually need it first.

What’s your approach to providing mental health support at work?

"As above, it starts with understanding the voice of the workforce. This involves first defining what wellbeing means to the organisation (and defining how we can measure it), then building a baseline on it, and understanding the different needs across the population.

"It’s important to understand if there are groups within the workforce who aren’t operating at their best – why is that? It may be related to their work, the workplace culture, or completely outside, in their personal lives. Armed with this information you can then look for the best way of addressing these needs. The final piece is around evaluating how well these supports and changes are actually working – this is an ongoing iterative process."

Do you think wellbeing impacts company productivity?

"Yes – 100%! The link is proven at the individual, team and organisational level – best summarised here by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity."

Carolyn shared her insights on wellbeing after reading our IPSOS report ‘Why Employee Wellbeing Isn’t Working. And What You Need to Do About It’. Read the report and learn how to transform employee wellbeing in your organisation.

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