Employee wellbeing: Is $2.37 billion a wise investment?

23 October 2019 - 4 minute read

If you’re too stressed to take a break and read to the end of this article, the unfortunate truth is you are far from alone. According to the 2019 Workplace Wellness Report from Southern Cross Health Society and BusinessNZ, the number of businesses reporting an increase in the levels of stress and anxiety is on the rise.

While the increase may be relatively minor compared to the 2016 report, it’s a trend that is echoed in the latest wellbeing data from Statistics New Zealand. This shows the number of people who experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress has risen consistently since 2014, with an alarming rise in younger people.1

On the other hand, the Workplace Wellness Report also found that employers spent an estimated $2.37 billion in 20182 on workplace wellbeing; which equates to just over $1500 per employee. That buys a lot of green smoothies, neck massages and yoga classes - but where’s the money really going? Are employers spending wisely, and are they spending enough on their people to help them manage their stress, and enhance their overall wellbeing? And what are the learnings for managers wanting to care for and retain their people?

To answer that, we need to start by looking more closely at workplace stress. Not surprisingly, amongst all businesses surveyed, workload was identified in the Workplace Wellness Report as the number one cause. Interestingly, this is not the same as ‘long working hours’ - which was ranked the third highest cause of workplace stress and anxiety, behind ‘changes at work’. Relationships at work were also seen as a root cause, and the only one where businesses under 50 ranked higher than their larger and generally more stressful counterparts.

One out-take from these findings is that when it comes to stress, it’s less about the what of work for employees, and more about the how. Stress is a state when an individual can no longer feel in control of their destiny. In the case of workload, this can often be due to unclear or unrealistic expectations, lack of support and feedback from managers, and ‘project creep’. It applies equally to changes at work; whether it’s to a task, a role, a team or an entire structure. Humans are creatures of habit; and the unexpected naturally makes us feel anxious. We’re also by nature social animals; we are programmed for connection and it’s a key need in order to maintain a state of wellbeing. We seek out positive relationships in the working environment. On the other hand, we are adversely affected by poor relationships where conflict is not well managed or resolved, so little wonder it’s a key cause of workplace stress.

Just as significantly, the Workplace Wellness Report also looked at the main causes of non-work related stress. This makes sense, given that employees have lives outside of work, with all the drama and challenges that naturally flow from them. Bad stress is not easily left at the front entrance to the workplace; it tends to accompany someone throughout their working day, impacting on their performance and productivity, and the overall mood of the team. That’s where it gets interesting. Because outside of work, relationship issues were actually identified as the number one cause of stress - which was higher amongst those working for smaller businesses. And the second highest cause of stress? Illness and health, which ranked ahead of financial concerns. Of course, those stressors aren’t always mutually exclusive; someone who has health issues may also be worried about their finances or worried about being unable to work due to ill health.

So back to the question; where is the $2.37 billion on workplace wellbeing actually going, and is it a wise investment?

Manager training: The Workplace Wellness Report showed a positive increase in ‘training for managers to identify and manage stress.’ That’s an encouraging sign, although sadly it’s less prevalent in smaller businesses than larger ones. That training may come at a cost, but the benefits are far-reaching. As the saying goes, understanding the problem goes a long way to solving it. Equipping managers to be able to understand the causes of workplace stress and how to best manage their teams is a sensible way to alleviate it and can directly impact on the overall wellbeing of the team. It sets a cultural expectation in a business that people are to be cared for, and their wellbeing is to be valued and respected.

Employee Assistance Programmes: 91.8% of businesses with more than 50 employees reported in the Workplace Wellness Report they now have an Employee Assistance Programme, or EAP. For those with fewer employees, the rate is only 34%, but that is sure to rise. So, why are they investing in EAPs? In short, because they work - EAPs provide a clear pathway to highly professional, accessible and confidential support for an employee - outside of their day to day work environment.

From anxiety and depression to conflict with workmates or managers, EAPs deal with it all, all the time. Better still, they help employees just as much with issues from outside their workplace, from relationship difficulties to financial stress. Given that some smaller businesses don’t have the bandwidth to support their employees with specialist team members, signing up to an EAP would be a very sound investment.

Health insurance: When you see that the second highest cause of stress outside of work is health, followed closely by finances, investing in employee health insurance seems like a no-brainer. Not only does it remove stress around the cost and immediacy of healthcare, it also helps ensure and insure the overall health and wellbeing of the business, safeguarding productivity and human capital. But providing free health insurance has other advantages when it comes to attracting and retaining good employees. As Fluid Recruitment Director Peter Clark says,

‘Candidates really like the benefits of health insurance - especially if they’ve had it in previous roles, so there’s a lot of value attached. Ultimately, it can matter more to an individual than the salary.’

Diversity and inclusion policies and practices: How can investing in diversity and inclusion improve the wellbeing of employees? For starters, it ensures that every employee can ‘bring their whole selves to work’. Any type of discrimination or stigma can negatively impact on a person’s workplace wellbeing, as opposed to feeling like they work in a safe and supportive environment where they can thrive. But diversity and inclusion policies do more than that; they benefit the wellbeing of the business as well as the individual. They mean teams have a more diverse range of people, ideas, and talents. Happy businesses and diverse businesses go hand in hand. One recent study showed that over 90% of employees across the US, UK, France and Germany who described themselves as ‘elated’ described diversity in their workplaces as ‘average’ or ‘above average.’3

Flexible working: If stress equates to the sense of losing control of one’s destiny, flexible working arrangements create the sense of regaining it. They allow the employee to decide, within reason, where and how they can best perform. Whether it’s the stress of having to rush from work to collect a child from day care, or the pressure an employee feels to still come to work despite feeling unwell, flexible working environments mean less stress and more wellbeing.

In the latter case, it looks like businesses are trending in the right direction. Know that horrible feeling you get when someone pitches up to work as a hero, despite ‘being really, really sick’? The Workplace Wellness Report showed that while there was an increase in overall absenteeism to 7.4 million working days, there was also a significant reduction in businesses which said their people were likely to turn up to work despite being unwell. So the ‘martyr complex’ is being actively replaced with an infinitely more sensible and healthy organisational culture.

And it’s that organisational culture, and culture change, where the battle for healthier, happier employees is being fought and won. As Nick Astwick, CEO of Southern Cross Health Society says,

‘We spend about 1900 hours a year at work, so it’s important to both invest in our peoples’ wellbeing and create cultures where sick days are acceptable. It’s the right thing to do for businesses and for employees. A culture of health leads to a healthy culture.’

Not only does he talk the talk, Mr Astwick also walks the 10,000 step walk, by ensuring his business leads by example. From creating a culture that strongly emphasises ‘bringing your whole self to work,’ to comprehensive employees training in mental health and flexible working arrangements, he says.

‘We’ve seen a substantial benefit to productivity by investing in the wellbeing of our employees.’

In summary, stress and anxiety appear to be on the rise in this country, but there is plenty that managers can do to reverse that trend. A culture of wellbeing means providing access to such things as EAPs, health insurance, flexible working arrangements, together with policies that promote acceptance, diversity and inclusion. This not only ensures employees are healthier, it also helps ensure they’re happier and more productive. When you think of it like that, $2.37 billion sounds like a very wise investment.

For more information about how a wellbeing programme can help your organisation, contact Southern Cross Health Society.


  1. https://wellbeingindicators.stats.govt.nz/en/mental-health-status-psychological-distress/
  2. Figure based on StatsNZ Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) figures
  3. From Positivity to Productivity: Exposing the truth behind workplace happiness: Wrike.com Pp 16
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