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Workplace wellbeing as a reputational risk: Opportunities for occupational health as a key stakeholder

Posted by Ann Caluori | Mon, 12/02/2024 - 11:58


Guest blog by Suzanne Clarkson


Psychosocial risk management is vital but will not (on its own) automatically result in a happy, healthy, and thriving workforce; all of which can be encapsulated in the term ‘employee wellbeing’. Balance and joined-up thinking are needed, because employee wellbeing is an output (according to various academic literature) – the result of a number of inputs: risk management representing one; the behaviours that lead to employee engagement another.


But while employee wellbeing is being shifted under Health & Safety auspices – increasingly seen as part of S (Social) in ESG strategy and no doubt thanks to ISO45003 – there is the worry that everything leans too far towards risk management.


While that might help where work-related mental ‘ill health’ and burnout are concerned, mental ‘wellbeing’ requires a different emphasis. This is about creating the conditions for employee engagement (not the once a year survey variety); outcomes of which include: satisfaction, wellbeing (and the ‘inclusion’ aspect to DEI as part of that) and performance.


But, right now, everything sits in separate buckets. Arguably, this does not lead to efficiencies, nor effectiveness.


What has this got to do with organisational reputation? Well, a happy, healthy, and thriving workforce is important to big investors when assessing the long-term value of an organisation (whether couched in ESG terms or not).


Not only that, but people want to hear from their peers – we trust people like us, not marketeers and advertisers – when assessing whether an organisation is worth applying to, working well for, and advocating for. Whether or not people are happy, healthy, and thriving is key.


What OH professionals have to say about all this

This thinking received support following a recent SOM webinar. Here is what one person – an OH Physician – had to say:


“I have long felt that ‘joined up thinking’ is generally lacking in most organisations. However, whilst it is a nice catchphrase to use, how would you go about analysing and demonstrating this practically and convincingly to yet-to-be-convinced number-crunching executives?”


The notion of ‘number crunching’ is definitely a challenge. For example, S in ESG strategy currently encourages siloed thinking. It is designed according to standardised frameworks that separate big and interrelated matters into individual buckets and simple numbers. Well-meaning organisations are busy tying executive pay to these ESG buckets. This inevitably causes execs to focus on the quantitative (a few siloed aspects of wellbeing, such as health & safety and diversity) at the expense of the qualitative (culture): “They’d hit the target, but miss the point”.*


But that does not mean that there is no room for the qualitative and bespoke in ESG strategy.*


It might just help bring some differentiation to all the standardisation, not to mention wellbeing improvements.


So, how can you convince leadership about the need for balance and joined-up thinking?

A good starting point is an employee listening programme. Identify the biggest area for improvement, then consider the behaviours needed. Behaviours create culture. They join the dots. And a small set of behaviours (say, seeking feedback and ideas, listening to understand, and sharing knowledge) might underpin and address everything mentioned here: employee engagement, wellbeing, DEI, ESG.


This is about bottom-up thinking; behaviour that is led, spread and scaled up peer-to-peer, with leaders in a supportive role (this is engagement in action). Top-down methods simply do not bring about cultural change.


  • Quantitative data: Take a look at a range of existing people data sources to help identify pain points related to wellbeing; stress risk assessments, employee engagement survey results, absence data, exit interviews etc. This can help identify areas for improvement.
  • Qualitative data: Highlight the disconnects between what employers think constitutes wellbeing and what employees think. Disconnects are not usually hard to find. Start with one-to-one interviews with leaders, to understand their view on workplace wellbeing. Then, focus groups with frontline employees. Explore their experiences of work and the work environment – negative and positive – rather than directly asking what wellbeing means to them.
  • Analysis: Use a combination of everything above to highlight to management what is working, what isn’t, and what could be.
  • Recommendations: Focus recommendations on the behaviours needed to address the biggest challenge.
  • Measures: Must be targeted to the specific challenge and recommendations; and with obvious links to organisational reputation. See below.


A case in point

In my Masters qualification, I looked at employee engagement with the S in ESG in one organisation (with DEI specifically in mind). I found significant disconnects between employer and employee views. Employers associated DEI with awareness campaigns and diverse hiring practices. Employees associated DEI with feeling heard.


I found that employee voice was the golden thread running through everything: not only an outcome of employee engagement, but also a precursor to it (i.e. following academic evidence that employees engage with job resources (DEI/ESG in this instance) when they’ve had some input into what those resources look and feel like).


Recommendations centred on inclusive behaviours. In other words, creating the conditions for employee voice.


As this was about engagement (emotional connection – a psychological state) with DEI/ESG, the measure had to reflect that. It must also support discussions with management about reputational impacts. So, I recommended the Organisational Identification Questionnaire (OIQ). This, alongside another measure to look at the behavioural expression of that psychological state; useful to ensure practicability.


Suzanne Clarkson is Managing Director of Coach House Communications



*Alex Edmans, The End of ESG, Financial Management, Dec 2022