The power of wellbeing

13 February 2017

Author: Duncan Forgan

The power of wellbeing

Investing in employee health pays dividends in the long run. So why are so many business leaders still not convinced?

They say that a bit of hard work never hurt anyone. But the evidence of exposure to a long-hours working culture suggests the very opposite is true.

In Japan, devotion to the company helped build the country into an economic powerhouse as corporate foot soldiers vied with each other to put in superhuman hours of unpaid overtime. But the subsequent long-hours culture has been blamed for everything from a low birth-rate to the prevalence of stress-related illness. And last year, the concept of karoshi – death from overwork – came to international prominence with the news that official figures suggested 200 people had succumbed to it last year. Most suspected the number was conservative in the extreme.

But karoshi is not a new phenomenon, or restricted to Japan. China is experiencing a surge of exhaustion-related deaths, which some experts have put at up to 600,000 per year. Stress levels are on the rise right across Asia as the issue reaches the public consciousness for the first time.

“It is a well-known fact that Asian workers put in some of the longest hours in the world,” says Louis Lye, country manager for fitness wearables business Fitbit in southeast Asia. “However, we are beginning to see a shift to addressing wellness.”

Partly, this is happening at a governmental level. In 2015, Japan pushed through legislation forcing employees to use their paid leave. In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower is encouraging firms to adopt flexible working, and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices is publicising the concept of corporate wellbeing. But the more profound, and immediate, shift is coming from companies themselves, which are fed up of counting the cost of ill-health.

“For a long time, there was an incorrect belief that as long as someone was not ill, that was wellbeing,” says Jochen Reb, associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resources at Singapore Management University. “Now, research is showing more and more that the absence of illness is not the same as wellbeing. Instead, individuals and organisations can take active steps towards enhancing wellbeing, and thereby productivity.”

Long hours are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are a particularly illustrative example of why the effects of work on individual health are so profound – and why organisations increasingly see both a moral imperative and a business case for intervening. Working just one extra hour a day increases the chances of suffering a stroke over the next eight and a half years by 10 per cent, while people who toil away for 55 hours a week raise their risk by a third, according to a recent study in medical journal The Lancet.

Those who spend longer at work are also more likely to develop heart disease. It is thought that the stress of long hours can trigger biological changes in the body that, over time, can lead to chronic conditions.

The stress and mental ill-health that harmful work environments can induce is one side of the wellbeing coin – if companies can put in place preventative measures that reduce the risk of harm, and react quickly when an employee is diagnosed with a condition (whether it is work-related or not), they will reap the rewards in engagement and productivity. But it is even more rewarding to encourage staff to take ownership of their physical and mental wellbeing and live healthy lives – playing into the broader idea that work can and should be a force for good in wider society.

Dr Sarah Dunleavy, research adviser at CIPD Asia, points to the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama, who said: “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of wellbeing becomes.” HR, she says, should be the embodiment of this ideal in the business: “HR professionals have an added responsibility to safeguard the wellbeing of our organisations and the people in them. As the Dalai Lama’s quote suggests, by cultivating a culture of happiness and wellbeing, we create a strong organisation.”

The starting point must be understanding what we mean by wellbeing and the reasons it is worthy of organisational investment. “Wellbeing is about more than not being physically sick,” says Dunleavy. “It includes physical, mental and social health.”

In practical terms, she adds, that means moving away from a ‘health and safety’ mindset that sees wellbeing primarily as a compliance exercise that reduces the chances of causing harm, and instead thinking about a holistic approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace across five domains: health, work, values and principles, collective and social, and personal growth. Viewed in this way, there is no one-size-fits-all approach: an effective wellbeing strategy will meet the needs of the specific organisation.

“It should be at the centre of how an organisation realises its mission, and an active part of its daily operations,” says Dunleavy. “It shouldn’t consist of one-off initiatives.”

Many companies have some way to go in this regard, in common with the societies in which they operate. Asian countries ranked low compared to other regions in the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index, which attempted to measure wellbeing in its broadest sense. Singapore (97th of 145 countries) and Hong Kong (120th) in particular appeared to have considerable room for improvement.

And yet the rewards are there for the taking. A meta evaluation from the US-based Chapman Institute found that a health promotion programme of even average effectiveness could decrease employee sick leave by 25.3 per cent. Little wonder employers that are making a determined effort to implement meaningful and holistic wellbeing programmes for their staff are reporting a variety of benefits.

“Ensuring the health and happiness of our employees is key to our strategy,” says Christina Chan, head of HR operations at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The club is Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer and has around 20,000 employees. Its wellbeing programme, which was established in the 1990s, encompasses a range of strands. These include graduate training, industry-specific training, occupational safety and health measures that include ergonomic training, regular health talks by doctors and discounts on fitness wearables.

The club holds more than 70 seminars a year and more than 3,000 employees join its various health schemes. It also utilises less health-focused ways of ensuring wellbeing – holding regular social gatherings where employees are encouraged to mingle with management, for example.

“We feel it is vital that an employee feels as though their company respects them,” says Chan. “We want them to feel proud that they work for the club. In this way, we can minimise absenteeism and staff turnover and also encourage them to strive for the good of the club.”

Multinationals are also increasingly proactive in this area. Google operates a widely admired mindfulness programme. Other holistic perks of working for the company include regular fitness consultations, free provision of personal trainers and canteens where each dish is colour coded according to how healthy it is.

Fitbit, meanwhile, has an acclaimed internal corporate wellbeing programme, but also helps other companies harness the power of their fitness trackers to create customised schemes. Employees use the trackers as a motivator within a reward programme or company-wide competition. A Fitbit dashboard with aggregated data can track steps, calories burned, active minutes, distance and hours of sleep.

Yet there is no ‘gold standard’ for what a corporate wellbeing strategy should encompass, says Reb. “I don’t necessarily believe in a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “There are a number of activities and programmes that are evidence-based. Employers can provide wellbeing activities in areas such as physical exercise, healthy eating, relaxation, sleeping or emotional intelligence. They can also ensure they provide nutritious and tasty meals. Perhaps the best way is to take a kind of cafeteria-style approach and let employees pick from a range of options.”

Two of the most important questions to ask when developing a wellbeing strategy are what it should cover and how it should be implemented. The aim could be to ensure employees can get the job done productively while remaining engaged and maintaining a positive work-life balance. But the solution will probably encompass far more than just a concept of health: it means thinking about diversity, the way communication takes place and the way work is organised, to ensure people feel they have autonomy. Many of these factors are inter-related, but optimising the approach to wellbeing means thinking about them all.

Does this have to be expensive? The trick is to create a strategy that works in the unique context of an organisation, no matter what its size. Initiatives such as promoting good physical and mental health, training line managers to have difficult conversations, good line management and job design, valuing difference, enabling employee voice through communication and consultation and ensuring autonomy don’t have to carry a large price tag. If implemented in a coordinated manner, they can place wellbeing at the heart of an organisation in a way that a one-off initiative such as free fruit or an annual dinner simply can’t.

Wellbeing plans can be costly to create. Large western companies spend an average of $878 per employee on wellbeing, according to a study from Fidelity Investments. “The majority of companies in Hong Kong are SMEs,” says Tracy Hiu, associate director of the human resources management programme at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Therefore they are not able to afford much in terms of workforce wellness. Many prefer to invest money in engagement activities such as an annual dinner or a Christmas party, as it seems like a more direct and effective investment.”

Yet there are always cheaper solutions, from co-opting advice from government departments and websites to forming a partnership with other businesses to reduce the cost of initiatives. A more pressing issue is privacy. Should it really fall on employers to intervene in the health matters of their staff? Hiu ascribes a laissez faire attitude towards corporate wellbeing among many companies to a perception that wellbeing should be a personal matter.

When you throw in the revelation, which broke in the business press last year, that some large US-headquartered multinationals have been using ‘big data’ from wellbeing programmes to track employee pregnancies – not to mention habits such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise – and it’s easy to see why many have concerns about the potential for helpful advice to slip into monitoring.

That’s where the way wellbeing is communicated becomes important, says Reb: “Employers can encourage good wellness habits and offer workplace mindfulness training programmes to help their employees become more aware. Such awareness can lead to insights into what negatively and positively affects our wellbeing.”

This describes a ‘nudge thinking’ approach that is far more appropriate when it comes to something as personal as wellbeing than a corporate diktat from on high. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at top Ivy League institutions in the US in conjunction with Evive Health concluded that a simple ‘nudge’ can be as effective as financial incentives – and significantly less costly. Nudge theory describes how small interventions in the environment or incentives can encourage people to make better decisions. In their study, researchers found that when employees were encouraged to write down the date and time of a flu vaccination there was a significantly higher participation rate than when they were simply encouraged to get a vaccination.

By studying which tactics worked and which ones didn’t, researchers were applying a behavioural economics approach to how people make healthcare decisions. Behavioural economics-based tactics used to ‘nudge’ employees towards better health include providing a small gift to remind recipients to schedule a health check. Behavioural science suggests that employees are likely to want to reciprocate. Other successful strategies include asking staff to commit to a certain health goal such as a desired weight or smoking cessation.

But however you approach it, wellbeing is moving from an HR topic to one that is central to business performance. “It used to be that businesses saw wellbeing as a soft, fuzzy thing at best,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper, psychologist, president of the CIPD and one of the world’s leading authorities on workplace wellbeing.

A turning point in this attitude came in the aftermath of the global recession, when one of the driving forces in many countries was the public sector, which had to act to reduce epidemic levels of stress to increase productivity.

“Lots of organisations in the private sector, meanwhile, see turnover as the issue that forces them to look at this,” says Cooper. “They became so mean and lean that if they lost any more people, they simply wouldn’t be able to carry on. They needed a strategic approach to wellbeing – and, beyond that, they needed a wellbeing culture.” Wellbeing, in this reading, is simply too important a topic to ignore any longer.

Can you really be mindful through an app?

Global businesses are embracing mindfulness, a concept that takes traditional Buddhist ideals into a corporate setting. But not everyone is sure it lives up to the hype

With its variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices, it can take some time for the uninitiated to get to grips with the myriad tenets of Buddhism. Similarly, the efficacy of ‘mindfulness’ as a business tool can also take some a while to pin down.

Defined as the psychological process of bringing your attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, mindfulness is a translation of the ancient term sati, a significant element in some Buddhist schools. It can be practised through meditation, breathing exercises or simply by taking some time to pause and observe the present moment as it is.

While the practice can trace its roots back for millennia, it has gained phenomenal traction in western countries. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American, adapted Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and developed the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) programme that is widely seen as the motherlode of the modern mindfulness movement.

Mindfulness is the number one health topic on most app stores. Leading mindfulness apps have been downloaded more than a million times, and organisations ranging from Google and AOL to Britain’s National Health Service have been incorporating the concept into their learning regimes.

Google, in particular, is famous for bringing mindfulness meditation into its training. The most popular of its courses for staff, Search Inside Yourself, brands itself as a workout for emotional intelligence and regularly has a waiting list stretching to six months.

Yet despite its voguish appeal, the mindfulness movement – which is, to be fair, backed up by extensive evidence extolling its use in the treatment of psychological disorders and improving the focus of individuals – is not without its critics.

Opinion is split on whether it is an invaluable way of focusing the mind and increasing productivity, or a wellbeing fad being used to secure and legitimise the interests of corporations. Detractors (and even many mindfulness trainers themselves) dismiss the shift towards corporatised ‘McMindfulness’, bemoaning the fact that mindfulness has now become a multibillion-dollar industry.

They argue that ‘being in the moment’ offers scant relief when employees are being asked to do more with less and working long hours with increasingly heavy workloads. Adherents, however, argue that better mindfulness can help to reduce stress, anxiety and conflict, and increase resilience and emotional intelligence. They say it can also improve communication in the workplace.

“In most first-world countries, stress and burnout syndrome have become the main reasons for sick days,” says Christian Carow, founder of the Mindfulness Project Thailand, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote sustainable, mindful living. “Training has a proven tremendous impact on stress levels and stress regulation. It helps to identify the stresses in your work, life and mind patterns. Also, applying mindfulness on communication processes leads to a much better understanding of problematic communication patterns in team and management structures.”

Although mindfulness meditation and its use in alleviating stress has been rethought in the west, the ancient art in its present form is making its way back to Asia. MBSR courses are now available in places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and firms beyond big multinationals are adopting mindfulness principles in the workplace.

“The development of conscious attention is the basis for every form of learning,” says Kirsty Campbell, wellbeing coordinator for a major international school in Phnom Penh. “Mindfulness… influences children’s learning. Practising conscious attention can be compared with tuning a musical instrument before you play it. Why should we not tune our learning instruments before we use them? In giving mindfulness a place in the curriculum, you not only stimulate learning. You also stimulate self-confidence, creativity, compassion and the executive functions.”

But even those who see the practice overwhelmingly as a force for good accept that its purity can be watered down or misused. “There is indeed a resistance to mindfulness about adapting pure Buddhist concepts and using them in different settings,” says Carow. “The concept has been watered down… and used to earn a lot of money and make it into a cheap psychological alternative.

“The more serious drawback is that companies use these concepts to make their employees more stress-resistant and high-performing and turn mindfulness into a way to generate higher profits. The core of mindfulness training is to reduce suffering on an individual as well as on a social level. If it is used in an egotistical or selfish way, it can easily become manipulation.”

Nevertheless, few would argue that having a stressed-out workforce is a desirable thing. And with mindfulness meditation widely recognised as an effective way of combating stress and anxiety, mindfulness is undoubtedly worth considering as part of a wellbeing strategy.

“There are so many scientific studies on the downside of multitasking and rumination,” says Alan Wallace, an acclaimed author and teacher on mindfulness. “Every type of disease, whether it’s physical or psychological, will be elevated if we are stressed out. That’s where mindfulness comes in.”

What is wellbeing?

The key factors behind the increasing interest in improving employee health – among both businesses and governments

Investing in employee wellbeing ought to be a win-win for employers, bringing gains in productivity as well as demonstrating a duty of care and offering benefits to wider society. But behind the idea lies a complex web of interconnected factors.

Most staff are safer at work than ever before, thanks to advances in health and safety technology and legislation. But stress and mental ill-health have become ever more important factors as the pace of business has increased in recent years, and academic thought has increasingly recognised that engaged and contented staff whose health needs are attended to work harder and are more loyal to their organisations.

Wellbeing encompasses prevention of illness, the promotion of good overall health and the way people with health conditions are treated by their employer. But it is wrapped up in the idea of ‘good work’ that is fulfilling in its own right and that puts employees’ holistic wellbeing at the heart of the way work is organised.

There is an imperative, too, in the increasing cost of absence management, and the rise of more complex mental health problems, in which overwork is undoubtedly a factor. HR professionals, senior leaders and managers all have a role in addressing these issues.

  • To find out more about the CIPD’s work on wellbeing, and hear the latest thinking on the topic at a regional event in Asia, please visit
  • For more on the theory behind employee wellbeing, read the CIPD wellbeing factsheet at