Market Pulse: How the wellbeing agenda is reshaping HR roles

Katrina Walton
Katrina Walton

As the big corporates increasingly look to workplace wellbeing to attract the best talent and keep staff productive and happy, the role of human resources professionals is changing too.

Where it used to be a more transactional role, the new HR combines both operational aspects such as pay and leave and rosters, as well as a strategic component, according to Jo Saies, director of PB Performance Coaching.

“There has been a general shift in HR.”

She says that “in an ideal world” HR professionals work with organisations to show how initiatives such as improving staff wellbeing can add value to the business.

The whole business proposition is that wellbeing results in people becoming more engaged and productive.

“There is a bottom line benefit.”

When people perform well, it helps a company increase profits or shareholder value.

Saies says there are many studies that show that when people feel happy and valued, they are more engaged.

A “higher sense of meaning and purpose” at work also matters.

This goes right through any organisation, she says.

Corporate CSR programs can have a role to play, for example participating in the World’s Greatest Shave or the Biggest Morning Tea. Charity involvement like this helps staff connect and build relationships, Saies says.

Contributing to a cause that has value and purpose generates positive emotions, and helps build social capital within the organisation.

For those in the HR office, driving the evolved HR agenda involves both managing broad organisational programs, and also coaching and influencing managers within the organisation on how to build and maintain a happy and positive team.

“Wellbeing can be superficial,” Saies says.

It’s more than a gym membership

Things like offering a corporate gym membership, or putting in a fancy coffee machine or a bowl of fruit, for example.

While these are nice and people enjoy them, she says, the crux of engagement requires a deeper level of thinking.

The stars of HR are the ones that want to work within a company to bring about a whole “culture shift” and strategically influence an organisation’s focus and processes.

To succeed in the new paradigm, HR personnel need to have an increasing range of skills, Saies says. They need to be strategic thinkers, have the ability to influence management and staff, possess business acumen and have a grasp of ethics and values.

The Australian Human Resources Institute has recognised the shift also, and has developed a framework for competencies in the HR profession that embrace many of these new aspects.

Saies’ consulting business is founded on principles of positive psychology, which is a scientific and evidence-based approach.

The concepts are starting to get some good traction with the management level, she says.

There are still companies taking the approach of “let’s jump on the happy bandwagon”, with activities like a day of team building, but this is not the most effective approach.

A strategic approach means making the company a place people “want to come to work”.

It is also the foundation for becoming an employer of choice. That’s the value proposition, Saies says.

When staff are genuinely happy in the workplace, there are fewer injuries, less absenteeism and fewer industrial relations issues.

“From an HR perspective, there is greater recognition that the wellbeing of staff, both physical and mental, makes a real difference to the bottom line.”

While many in the C-suite get this, the chief financial officer can be a “hard nut to crack” when investment is needed, as they need to have the return on investment demonstrated to them.

“But there is enough evidence to be able to put statistics in front of the CFO.”

HR needs a seat at the table

Saies says companies need to give HR a seat at the executive table if wellbeing is a focus. Then it is up to the influencing skills of the HR person themselves to ensure the right measures are implemented.

Director of Wellness Designs Katrina Walton says there are two major groups picking up the phone to engage her firm – HR directors and workplace safety leaders.

The most common thing they say is, “I know I have issues, but I don’t know where to start.”

In many cases they have tried a “scattergun” approach that has not resolved the issues.

What they hope to achieve from wellbeing initiatives is increased productivity, a safe workplace, and to attract and retain top talent.

The drive for increased productivity is particularly strong in Queensland, Walton says, as more companies are having to “do more with less”.

Walton says it is hard to have a safe workplace if it is not a healthy one. This is particularly true for organisations that have an ageing workforce.

She says there’s been a growing interest from government organisations that are aware they have an ageing workforce and want to improve wellbeing as a result.

Education and transport at the state level are particularly aware, she says, and there are also growing numbers of local governments engaging with staff wellness.

Companies that have undergone substantial change are also shifting their focus to wellbeing in order to raise staff morale and become a “great place to work”.

Not a tick the box exercise

However, Walton says a “tick the box” approach is not one that has worked for most clients, because they haven’t looked at the broader factors such as internal and external issues arising from things like economics or policy.

Her company has founded the Wellness Wise Academy to deliver nationally accredited training and certification credentials in the workplace wellbeing space.

This initiative aims to address the growing number of companies that want to have in-house capacity to implement large-scale programs.

“They want to take ownership,” Walton says.

“There is an increasing recognition of the holistic nature of wellbeing.”

There is a need also to resource those put in charge of wellbeing initiatives, which may be HR, workplace safety managers, marketing or even executive assistants.

Often the initiatives have been “run off the side of the desk”.

The goal is to build capacity within organisations.

That happens at three levels – the leadership level of the organisation that has a critical role in driving health and wellness, the dedicated coordinator and the departmental or site level.

Walton says that wellbeing is ideally either aligned with or combined with the overall corporate CSR policy and programs.

This can mean, for example, offering staff volunteer days to swap the office for a cause they feel strongly about. Or using an incentive-based strategy such as a team pedometer challenge where the prize is a donation to a charity of the team’s choice.

Wellbeing also has bottom-line benefits in terms of stakeholders.

Research in the US has shown that top-ranked listed firms that have a focus on health and wellbeing strategies have stocks that appreciate at 325 per cent compared with the average.

It is not just the top end of town that stands to gain. For the smaller companies, the same principles apply as they do to the big players.

The difference is in how they access opportunities.

Some do so by joining forces with other similar firms. Others work with not-for-profits, government groups or are able to leverage initiatives by large companies. Adidas in the UK, for example, gave surrounding SMEs access to its own wellness centre.

Walton says SMEs in some ways have an advantage as being smaller means they can implement change faster, and can also more easily extend initiatives to include the families of workers.

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