Bean bags, ping pong tables and lunchtime sushi are not going to improve employee well-being alone. Organisations should be conducting well-being audits every year so that they can get to the root of what’s really causing stress in the business and put appropriate measures in place to prevent it.

Illustration of woman meditating

This was one of the key take-aways from a talk by Professor Sir Cary Cooper at the University of Hertfordshire last week. In a no-holds barred presentation, he highlighted the cost and impact of our long hours, high pressure culture, which has led to the much documented rise in mental health issues among employees.

Stress at work has now overtaken musculoskeletal problems as the top cause of sickness absence in the UK, accounting for 57 per cent of all time off work. Ask employees what’s behind the numbers, and they will cite overload (too much work), underload (too little work), unrealistic deadlines, a 24/7 always-on workplace and lack of managerial support.

The on-going uncertainty around Brexit is also having an impact, leading to concerns about job security and a worrying increase in presenteeism (people coming into work when ill, because they are worried that being off sick will increase their chances of being laid off or overlooked).

Poorly trained leaders also had much to answer for, said the professor, highlighting the damage that could be caused by managers who lacked relational skills and the ability to organise work and manage their teams effectively.

These managers, who had often been promoted because of their technical rather than people skills, were having a real impact on morale, engagement and well-being, and should come with a ‘health warning’, he said.

There’s a real cost to organisations who don’t take the issue of employee well-being seriously (60 per cent of businesses in a recent CIPD survey admitted to not having any kind of strategy in place to tackle the problem).

Research by Robertson Cooper, for example, has uncovered a strong link between well-being and talent retention – which in an era of skills shortages, is something organisations can’t afford to ignore.

The consultancy collected well-being data across 4K employees and tracked how many quit their jobs in the following six months. The results showed that those classed in the bottom 20 per cent in terms of overall well-being were four times more likely to leave, racking up an average replacement cost of around £14K per employee.

By reducing the employee turnover rate to 10 per cent each year, the consultancy estimates that businesses with an average employee count of around 1,300 could save a staggering £1,694, 914.

So what’s an organisation to do? Using a reliable well-being diagnostic tool to measure and track what’s really going on is the starting point. Equipped with good quality data, the business can identify the pain points and design interventions at three key stages:


Tackling the root causes of stress via management development programmes to better equip leaders for their roles, paying proper attention to how the business helps employees achieve work-life balance and getting better at workforce planning.


Helping people cope with work-related stress through initiatives such as resilience training, a focus on well conducted appraisals, investment in personal development and healthy lifestyle initiatives.


Picking people back up, by equipping managers to spot the signs of stress and providing Employee Assistance Programmes where staff can seek professional support of whatever kind is needed.

There’s a significant return on investment to be had – which is probably why in larger organisations, well-being has become a board issue and is increasingly considered a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’. Research has shown, for example, that employers with well-being initiatives typically have 44 per cent better morale and engagement – with all the productivity pay-offs that brings.

There’s still a big job to do in the SME sector, however, said Professor Sir Cary Cooper, where organisations may not have a dedicated HR function or the budget to put appropriate measures in place. It’s an issue that’s already being considered at government level, with a view to exploring what policy interventions or support measures would help.

What’s your view? Does the professor’s view resonate? And what is your organisation doing about well-being?

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.