I lived the business case for employee wellbeing for over a decade. Playing the role of burnt-out employee, deeply committed people manager and commercial head for wellbeing service providers. Sometimes more than one of these at a time. In this time, I’ve consistently grappled with a glaring inconsistency between research and practice. Between what we know and what we do.
It was initially assumed that the business world only had to catch up to the academic research on employee wellbeing. When senior leaders recognised the significance of thriving teams in securing future success, they must invest in employees’ mental and physical health. So wellbeing proponents, both academic ‘thinkers’ and commercial ‘doers,’ sponsored research after case study after white paper to substantiate the theory. We all believed positive action would follow.
Yet one of the first longitudinal and most cited studies into the impact of employee wellbeing on financial performance was published in 2009. Glassdoor’s Chief Economist found that the best places to work from the site’s own user rankings, or those making Fortune’s ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list, outperformed the S&P 500 considerably (at +116% and +84% respectively) over a 6 year period. Yet, almost a decade on and we’re still drowning in statistics like:
It’s no secret that wellbeing is one of the biggest challenges facing the HR profession today.
We know that people managers feel responsible for the wellbeing of their teams but ill prepared to handle it.
It’s clear that those organisations that are prioritising wellbeing are still in the minority.
So why this disconnect between knowledge and action?
Let’s be clear. We all accept that wellbeing strategies are good for business in the long term. We know this isn’t a phase and we know we’ll have to address it one day. However, it seems that the observed ‘pain’ of doing nothing about wellbeing is not yet great enough to stop us delaying it.
Anyone who has tried, and failed, to advance a wellbeing strategy will recognise the frustration and eventual hopelessness that arises when employee wellbeing and happiness is consistently pushed back with excuses like:
“We’re just too busy at the moment”
“We have to get our new CRM/payroll/accounting system bedded in first”
“This will be in next year’s budget”
With the figures on burn out, global employee disengagement and work-related mental health painting such a dismal picture, do we really believe the ‘pain’ isn’t great enough for leaders to act? That new CRM systems are currently still more important?
The reason it’s so easy for so many of us to put wellbeing off is simple. The perceived pain of doing nothing feels small right now because we’re not reporting it. We can’t see it in the numbers. The true costs are hidden between the lines of the profit and loss report, a format first utilised in 1494 and still all that really matters in assessing business performance today.
The Profit and Loss Report is Dead
It doesn’t show us what we could be producing if more than 2 in 5 of our employees were working at peak performance. Nor does it report on the future cost saving when we invest in preventing burn out today. There is no line in the balance sheet deducting an ‘overworked employee tax’ or ‘stifled innovation levy’. And if we can’t see our pain, how can we effectively relieve it?
In a world obsessed with ‘disruption’ and challenging the status quo, why are we still reporting the health of a business the way we did five centuries ago? How many of today’s jobs even existed in 1494? Eventually we will be forced to act because the voice of the employee is getting louder and more confident. We’re already seeing debate on whether millennials are self-entitled or discerning because they refuse to put up with a profit-first mentality.
Perhaps if more VCs considered employee welfare when placing their bets for future success, we’d see the shift that knowledge alone has not provoked. Until we reboot our understanding of business performance and move beyond outdated success measures, wellbeing will probably remain on the back burner. Without this shift, we’ll never reach our potential as employers, organisations or employees.