The next taboo for wellbeing to conquer

Jayne Carrington former Managing Director of Right Corecare Ltd (EAP) and director of Dialogue First, a social enterprise specialising in supporting employees and their family at a time of separation, shares her insight on the need for today's workplaces to take care of their current workforce, looking beyond the standard metrics to recognise workplace wellbeing as an imperative in retaining today's talent. 

Today is World Health Day so let us celebrate the huge progress that’s been made in elevating the business case for taking better care of employees. There weren’t always leadership groups (like the Business in the Community) and industry awards for HR and Wellbeing professionals to showcase initiatives and compare actions with others.

Image of Jayne WrightWorld Health Day – this year themed around depression – is also an occasion to ask what the future holds for workplace wellbeing? Because while great strides have been taken, the oft-cited moniker of “fresh fruit & bicycles” persists, as does the more troubling failure to evaluate the effectiveness of wellbeing provision when it comes to a company’s bottom line.

By way of example, a Work Foundation report published in January this year found that just 9% of HR managers made any attempt to evaluate their EAP in terms of a cost utility benefit or return on investment. It suggests EAPs are seen by many purchasers as more akin to accoutrement than strategic bolt-on. Combined with poor utilisation rates - and the enduring absence of any common performance benchmark - EAPs struggle to articulate real value and are seeing margins drop year-on-year. It results in little funds or appetite for investment or innovation.

All this is playing out against a backdrop of mounting risk as boardrooms prepare to be buttressed by a labour shortage due to an ageing population and the reality of Brexit. Global consulting firm Mercer has labelled this an emerging “workforce crisis” that could precipitate a talent war as employers adapt their Employee Value Proposition to attract and retain the best workers.

In a recent note on the subject, Mercer said: “Facilitating employees’ financial, physical and mental wellbeing will become increasingly important as uncertainty and changes create more and obligations in the future UK workforce”.

But what will this mean for wellbeing provision? Perhaps a tale of two stressors – in the guise of how employers treat bereavement and family breakdown – provides an answer.

When an employee is bereaved, both the law and HR processes kick in. ACAS even cites an academic study saying one in 10 employees are likely to be affected by grief at any one time. A company employing 5000 people could therefore expect 500 of its employees to be impacted in some way.

But what of family breakdown? Well, publicly available data suggests divorce and separation be just as big an issue for employers. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 42% of marriages fail and over 90% of divorces occur among those of working age. As a stressor, it’s second only to bereavement on the famous Holmes and Rahe stress scale. And in terms of prevalence, the simple mapping of ONS data tells us around 60% of employees will be in a couple among which almost a fifth (18%) - according to a major 2016 survey by Relate - may be in such distress that they regularly consider separation or divorce.

Apply Relate’s findings to our imaginary 5000-strong headcount and a total of 540 workers would be impacted. While only a relatively small proportion of this figure will go on to separate each year, a ground-breaking 2013 longitudinal study warned that up to half of separating adults could be at risk of clinical depression. Moreover, research cited by the Samaritans found that the risk of suicide amongst divorced men was almost three times that of married men.

Yet despite its impact and prevalence, employers don’t collect any data about family breakdown when it comes to assessing its impact on productivity and performance. There is the understandable refrain from HR that the issue is taboo and that the EAP or counselling service has it covered. Having taken part in a recently completed workplace pilot to try and surface and respond to the issue, I can assure you this is not the case.

As such, an impacted employee and – equally important – their partner, are left to their own devices. A quick look at the high-street response should give cause for concern. Barely half of separating couples seek out any legal advice at all. Hourly rate lawyers are simply too expensive and offer no price certainty when it comes to negotiating an exit from conflict around children and finances. Depressingly, less than one percent of separating couples take themselves off to family mediation despite more longitudinal research demonstrating better prospects are achieved for families securing mediated settlements. It is something of an unreported scandal therefore that observable mediations in England and Wales have fallen by almost 50% since 2013.

The striking absence of structured support – and the momentum it fosters – manifests a wellbeing risk for the workplace and society alike. And neatly captures the direction of travel for employers that recognise workplace wellbeing will be an integral part of navigating the talent war of the future. Taking care of the current workforce has never been so critical.