Making Wellbeing Part of the Company Strategy – 5 Key Learnings

“This makes sense.”, said the leader of a large European bank opposite to me in a board room. He was staring down at a piece of paper, where I had just scribbled down a simplified version of the Organisational Value Chain: a leader’s wellbeing affects their own behaviour, which in turn affects the wellbeing and behaviour of their employees. This then has a direct impact on the customer experience – and yes, the bottom line.

Naturally the reality is much more nuanced. Yet the key message stands: we should not look at wellbeing in isolation, but as a part of the fundamental value creating processes of any organisation.

In a professional services organisation, employee wellbeing is directly correlated with client outcomes. A chronically stressed consultant will be operating at a reduced cognitive capacity, more prone to heuristics and tunnel vision thinking, and less capable of complex problem solving, creativity, even empathy. In manufacturing, wellbeing links to safety first. A sleep deprived engineer operating heavy machinery is an obvious risk to themselves and their environment. And across all organisations, wellbeing is a key determinant of employer branding, talent attraction and retention. Even in environments where long working hours are the norm, such as Wall Street, graduates are known to compare companies by their lifestyle and first year bankers to demand a cap on their workweek.

In the past two years, Covid-19 has rapidly moved wellbeing up the CEO agenda: 45% of employers are broadening their existing wellbeing programs, while 53% of workers feel that mental health benefits are now essential. The shift is driven by an acute need. Over 40% of Americans struggle with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic, with women and minorities facing even higher numbers. Meanwhile nearly 60% of leaders feel used up at the end of the workday, a strong indicator of burnout. As my colleague Pekka recently wrote: “Wellbeing at work is no longer a nice to have it is a must have“.

Back in the boardroom, the leader I was talking to did not need any convincing. We were already implementing his ambitious agenda to improve the wellbeing of his organisation from top to bottom and bottom up. He considered health and wellbeing a key part of his corporate strategy. In 2017, I would say he was ahead of his time.

Over the years Hintsa Performance has implemented several successful organisation-wide wellbeing programmes. I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of our key learnings.

1. Establish the baseline – and understand what’s driving it

What is the level of burnout risk or engagement across the different parts of your organisation? This first question should be relatively straightforward. But to what extent is the heightened burnout risk driven by the level of individual wellbeing vs. leadership – or organisational culture? In order to establish the baseline, you need to look at both the outcomes as well as the drivers behind those outcomes. Together with Aalto University Hintsa Performance has developed a diagnostic that examines the combined effects of leadership, culture, employee orientation and wellbeing on outcomes such as engagement, meaningfulness, thriving and burnout risk. Having ran the diagnostic also for our own organisation, I have to say the results were eye-opening.

2. Plan for targeted interventions – covering the whole organisation

One of the key take-aways from the diagnostic for me as a CEO was this: one size does not fit all. While burnout risk in one team may be driven by highly engaged employees burning the candle at both ends, a similar symptom in another team could be driven by a lack of autonomy. The interventions to be implemented are naturally vastly different. This observation holds true also for the client organisations we work with. Wellbeing is personal, and the organisational context is always unique. Which leads to another key take-away: initiatives should be designed to reach everyone, but high-touch services should be targeted at those who need them the most, not the ones who shout the loudest.

3. Role model from the top – and encourage grassroots activity

If I had to name one success factor of any organisational wellbeing program, it is role modelling from the top. The leadership needs to walk the talk. Preaching about the importance of sleep, while sending out emails past midnight is likely to come across as disingenuous. Meanwhile, grassroots activity is equally important. We have seen some wonderful examples from office football clubs to morning meditation, and from lunch time cooking classes to peer-to-peer mentoring programs. The one thing to bring it all together? Consistent communication. From podcasts to community walls, the possibilities to educate, energise and empower are endless. Yet we must remember that ultimately personal health and wellbeing remain the responsibility of each individual. Wellbeing is not something you just “implement” across the organisation. It requires intrinsic motivation and commitment.

4. Incorporate wellbeing into your key processes – and annual cycles

One of the most concrete examples of wellbeing strategy I have seen is at an industrial client we work with. Wellbeing is one of their “safety first”-procedures, and the interventions are planned to fit the annual maintenance schedule. From the get-go, wellbeing quickly became a part of the natural organisational cycle. The key learning: make wellbeing an integral part of your value creating processes, such as talent development and performance management. For example, instead of just adding a wellbeing module into employee trainings, the trainings themselves can be designed for optimal learning with preparation, breaks, brain friendly nutrition, activities, and follow-up. And instead of maintaining employee wellbeing as a “nice to have”, make it a part of your leadership principles. In one professional services organisation we work with, team wellbeing is actually incorporated as a mandatory criterion in partner evaluations.

5. Commit long-term – and be ready to adapt based on results

This is no news: culture change takes time. And somehow, it’s still easy to think that this basic rule doesn’t apply to your organisation. Individual behaviour change is an iterative process and the organisational system is by nature even more complex. Situations change, and you need strategies and tools that adapt. Commit long term, monitor and hold accountable – just as you would as a part of your regular strategy process. One concrete example is to adopt a balanced scorecard for your wellbeing programme, bringing together the different parties and sources of data from occupational healthcare to talent development. Establish a joint steering group with key stakeholders and regularly follow progress. And as always: measure, learn, and adapt based on the results. Progress is rarely linear.

In the post-Covid world wellbeing will be increasingly important. We are only beginning to see many of the long-term side effects of the pandemic. On the other hand, the new normal also presents opportunities. If you would like to discuss how to leverage this unique inflection point to make wellbeing a key part of your corporate strategy, we are here to help!