UEA academic hopes her study will improve workplace wellbeing practices across region

PUBLISHED: 05:30 25 April 2018 | UPDATED: 08:18 26 April 2018

Dr Helen Fitzhugh, senior research associate at Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia. Picture: Courtesy of Helen Fitzhugh

Dr Helen Fitzhugh, senior research associate at Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia. Picture: Courtesy of Helen Fitzhugh


Where is your business on the workplace wellbeing journey?

This is the question being posed by an academic who has spent months studying how Norfolk and Suffolk businesses are looking after their staff’s physical and mental health.

The study involved listening to the measures employers were taking to look after their staff and the challenges in providing these solutions, while also aiming to increase regional awareness of the positive links between employee wellbeing and productivity.

Research by mental health charity Mind estimates that every year stress and other mental health problems cost the country’s businesses £2.4bn and account for 70 million lost working days.

The study’s author Dr Helen Fitzhugh, a senior research associate at UEA’s Norwich Business School, drew upon research from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing at the business school, which aims to inform better policy and practice for wellbeing.

The result offers a road map for businesses looking to implement some or more measures to improve staff wellbeing and examples of how other companies of different sizes have addressed the main challenges.

Dr Fitzhugh said research has proved that promoting employee wellbeing can reduce staff turnover and costs, and induce greater creativity.

“A lot of people were really interested in employee wellbeing, it seems to be a booming space, but some organisations were confused about what they were going to do – how they could implement it, how it would fit into their general business approach,” she said.

“We need to know what the barriers are for people to translate the research into action.”

Five key areas were identified in promoting good wellbeing, including the provision of “high quality” jobs, good managers, and effective signposting and support for people who are struggling.

“Some of the people who have not done it before are looking for a silver bullet which you will not find because it is dealing with people, and people are complex,” Dr Fitzhugh said.

“This is about the broad strokes and how you implement them in each individual business.”

The study was funded by the National Productivity Investment Fund and Economic and Social Research Council.

You can read Dr Fitzhugh’s workplace wellbeing resource here. She will be giving a talk related to her study at UEA on May 10.

These are the study’s two key lessons, according to Dr Fitzhugh:

– Have a clear vision: Know what you want to achieve and then work out how you are going to achieve it. Dr Fitzhugh said a lack of clear vision and planning could mean “every-day” business concerns get in the way of implementation.

“You need a clear way of thinking and clear performance indicators to see if you are managing it,” she said. “The organisations who have managed to do it are experimenting a bit.

“If an organisation is not sure about what they are doing they can scatter-gun ideas.”

– ‘Good managers’: Perhaps the most important thing, Dr Fitzhugh says, is making sure employers know how to handle employees who are struggling sympathetically but “robustly” – a strategy which can reap rewards for a business.

“This is something we know as an issue – people are promoted for technical skills but they have not had much formal training on how to manage people, so when things come up that are a bit difficult they are not going to know how to deal with it,” she said.

Task force putting advice into action

Following Helen Fitzhugh’s study, a regional wellbeing task force has been established.

It includes representatives from major East Anglian employers including Adnams, BT, the East of England Co-op and Anglian Water.

The task force aims to develop solutions to problems around the promotion of employee wellbeing, sharing best practice with input from UEA academics working in the field of organisational behaviour.

Mark O’Hagan, joint chief executive of East of England Co-op, said: “The Co-op ethos is about caring for our community and for our colleagues. We see a cycle that if we look after our colleagues, they will deliver class-leading friendly service,” he said.

“We are not looking for the latest gimmick [in wellbeing] – we want to develop relationships. For us it is about getting senior managers to lead by example.”

The same challenges are also at the heart of the latest Best Employers Eastern Region campaign, which aims to reward the companies going the extra mile to look after their employees.

Run by recruitment firm Pure and psychometrics experts Eras, and delivered by law firm Birketts and publisher Archant, the scheme offers companies a free and anonymous insight into what workers are feeling - and what to do about it.

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