Organisational wellness beyond yoga mats and meditation apps

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Breathe CEO Lana Hindmarch unpacks why the HR wellbeing strategy needs a data-driven overhaul.

Picture this: you’ve just received the results of your latest employee engagement survey. As you scan the data, your heart sinks. Despite your best efforts to promote wellbeing – the mental health sessions, the fitness challenges, the shiny new wellness app – the numbers paint a bleak picture. Burnout is rampant, morale is low, and your top talent is eyeing the door.

You start to question whether your focus and investment in wellness has been in vain, and you are wondering how to move forward, especially considering the critical role that wellbeing plays in talent retention.

And you’re not alone. The Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom study at the University of Oxford (although UK-based,) is the largest ever conducted on employee wellbeing, and concluded that many wellness initiatives had “no effect” on mental health. It’s enough to make any HR director wonder: is the wellbeing focus and investment worth the effort?

Before you toss out your company yoga mats and cancel your mindfulness subscriptions, let’s take a step back. Because while the Oxford study may seem like a damning indictment of workplace wellness, it actually offers a profound insight into how to create wellbeing strategies that not only support employees’ health but also improve talent retention.

The key? We need to stop thinking of wellbeing as a collection of isolated initiatives and start treating it as a strategic imperative that permeates every aspect of the organisation’s culture and operations.

You see, the Oxford study found that standalone wellness interventions, implemented without regard for the broader organisational context, had little impact. This doesn’t mean these initiatives are inherently ineffective. Rather, it suggests they are insufficient when implemented in isolation.

And when you think about it, it makes sense. What good is a yoga class or a fitness challenge if your employees are drowning in work, disconnected from their colleagues, and afraid to speak up about toxic leadership?

Similarly, offering mental health sessions is unlikely to make a meaningful difference if employees are working in an environment where they feel unsupported, undervalued, or disconnected from their purpose. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone.

But there’s another crucial factor that often undermines the effectiveness of wellbeing initiatives: the data used to inform them. Many companies rely solely on engagement surveys to gauge the health and happiness of their workforce, but an engagement survey is not a wellbeing survey.

Engagement surveys are great for measuring factors like connection to the mission and purpose of the company, pride, job satisfaction, loyalty and motivation. But they often fail to capture the nuances of employee wellbeing – the stress levels, the work-life balance issues, the mental and emotional strain that can silently erode health and productivity over time.

To truly understand and address wellbeing, data must go deeper than an engagement survey. HR should be leveraging tools like holistic wellbeing-specific surveys, focus groups, exit interviews and sentiment analysis to get a comprehensive picture of the landscape and the organisational factors driving low levels of wellbeing.

When my team works with organisations to develop wellbeing strategies, we always start with a discovery and listening phase. First, we roll out individual wellbeing-specific questions to help us understand how empowered people feel across the different areas of their lives and their health. The more empowered people feel, the more well they are, and the more energy they have.

This data then becomes a compass that points us to the systemic factors impacting wellbeing.

For instance, if the wellbeing-specific data reveals to us that a high percentage of people are struggling with insomnia or poor sleep quality, we investigate what in the workplace is contributing to this. Are unrealistic deadlines keeping them up at night? Are after-hours emails and an always-on expectation standing in the way of a good night’s sleep?

Or perhaps the data shows that social isolation and lack of connection are major stressors, particularly for remote workers. Organisations can then respond for example, by establishing rules of engagement in meetings that create presence and human connection, or training managers on empathy-building, or introducing mentorship programmes and internal employee communities that foster a sense of belonging and support.

Or, as was the case with a recent new client, the data revealed across all teams a lack of work-life balance as a major stressor and retention risk. Now, the head of HR has evidence to advocate for more flexible work arrangements, clearer boundaries around work hours, and policies that encourage and model healthy detachment from work.

If issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion emerge as key drivers of disengagement and turnover, for example, investment in DEI training and initiatives to foster a greater sense of belonging are worth considering.

Every organisation has a different landscape and the root causes of low levels of wellbeing will differ. The point is, by making wellbeing data the foundation of a strategy, and by considering the broader system, you have a powerful compass to guide your wellbeing efforts so they are not in vain.

You get to uncover what’s actually driving the burnout, disengagement, and ultimately, turnover.

Now picture this – you’ve just received the results of your latest employee wellbeing survey. As you scan the data, a smile spreads across your face. The numbers tell a story of a workforce that is thriving – engaged, resilient, and brimming with purpose.

This isn’t just a fleeting moment of success, but the culmination of a strategic journey you embarked upon. Fed up with the status quo, you set out to transform your organisation’s approach to wellbeing, moving beyond standalone shiny initiatives to a holistic, data-driven strategy that permeates every aspect of your culture.

You started by gathering rich, multidimensional data which became your roadmap, guiding you towards the specific areas where your employees needed the most support.

But you didn’t stop there. You recognised you needed to address the systemic and cultural factors that were shaping your employees’ experiences. So you dove deep into the data, using advanced analytics to uncover the hidden patterns and connections.

What emerged was a vivid picture of your organisation’s unique ecosystem. You could see how leadership behaviours, communication patterns, workload expectations and job design were all interacting to influence employee health and happiness. And with this clarity came the power to drive meaningful change.

You launched targeted initiatives to address the root causes of stress and burnout, from redesigning roles to promoting healthier work-life boundaries. You invested in leadership development programmes that equipped your managers to become true wellbeing champions. You reimagined back-to-work to create environments that energised and inspired.

But perhaps most importantly, you wove wellbeing into the very fabric of your culture. It became a shared value, a daily practice, and a key metric for organisational success. And as your employees felt increasingly supported, valued, and empowered, something remarkable happened – they began to bring their full, authentic selves to work.

Creativity surged. Collaboration thrived. Engagement soared. And your employer brand? It shone like a beacon, attracting top talent from far and wide.

This is the power of a truly strategic approach to employee wellbeing. By moving beyond the wellness ‘check box’, you didn’t just boost retention and productivity – you fundamentally changed the trajectory of your organisation.

The path wasn’t quick and it wasn’t always easy, but through a commitment to ongoing measurement and iteration and getting leadership-buy in, you’ve created something extraordinary. You’ve created a better way to work.

And as you look to the future, you know that this is just the beginning. Because when you make wellbeing a strategic priority, there’s no limit to what your organisation can achieve.

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