Working well

To boost well-being, employers focus on the workplace experience

Jacqui Griffiths
6 December 2017

6 min read

Increasingly, more organizations are recognizing that employee health and happiness contribute to business success. As a result, many businesses are proactively weaving well-being into the workplace.

Many of the world’s most successful businesses have a reputation of caring about their workers’ well-being. Look at the Coca-Cola Company, whose workers enjoy free fruit, gym passes and flexible hours to help them stay healthy and achieve a work-life balance. Or Unilever, which recently launched a “Wellbeing Zone” with four sections for conversation; refreshment, with free, healthy snacks; movement, including yoga, massage and stretching classes, as well as a work-station treadmill and quiet. 

“The purpose of the Zone is to provide our people with a space for mindfulness, meditation, rest and recovery,” said Mike Clementi, vice president of human resources at Unilever, in an interview with Thrive Global website.

These companies’ efforts are more than recruiting tools. The correlation between happy, healthy employees and business success was underlined in 2016, when three studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that publicly traded organizations with outstanding well-being programs significantly outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

While it is difficult to prove direct causality between a well-being program and business performance, employers increasingly are linking the two. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for example, found in its 2016 “Absence Management Survey” that organizations most commonly increase their focus on well-being because they want to be a great place to work – an important factor in attracting and retaining talent. Nearly half of the companies surveyed for the report said they believe employee well-being is linked to business performance.

Employer focus on employee well-being is more the exception than the rule, however. According to US-based think tank Global Wellness Institute (GWI) in its 2016 report ”The Future of Wellness at Work,” 76% of the world’s workers are “struggling” or “suffering” with their physical well-being and 38% suffer work-related stress. Although many employers are putting well-being programs in place, their success is mixed. In the US, for example, GWI found that only 40% of employees with well-being programs say that the programs actually improve their health and wellness.


Ophelia Yeung, senior research fellow at GWI and co-author of the report, advises that to address employee well-being successfully, businesses need to look at the causes of employee stress and illness.

“Many employers are stuck in a ‘workplace program’ mode with separate measures to help employees lose weight, stop smoking or manage stress,” Yeung said. “But when stress is caused by work, it’s not enough simply to deal with the result. You need to take a proactive approach to prevent it. The way people interact, the way they arrange their work, the way leadership and management manifest – all of that drives the stress level. This is not simply a health issue; it’s fundamental to the workplace experience.”

Changes in the expectations of employers and employees also make it increasingly important to extend well-being efforts throughout the workplace experience, experts say.

“Automation is changing the nature of people’s work,” said Andy Swann, a consultant on people-focused change at BDG, a UK-based architecture and design company that helps organizations create people-friendly workplaces. “For the past 200 years or so, we’ve needed people to work like robots, doing repetitive tasks. But now that we have robots to do those jobs we need people to think, create, collaborate and care. We need people to be people now, and that’s causing organizations to focus on nurturing them through the experience they give them.”

As the nature of work changes, so do employee expectations.

“Millennials don’t expect to advance in the same company (for their entire careers), so they’re looking for something else to make it worthwhile for them,” Yeung said. “Boomers are also aware of a finite timeline as they approach retirement, so they’re not going to put up with a bad experience. It’s not just about money or advancement for these people; the experience needs to be meaningful to them and help them to grow. Employers are looking at how they can get that intrinsic motivation, and caring for their employees’ well-being, offering flexibility and making sure they’re happy is the key.”


Pioneers in this area are embracing well-being as an area of convergence among departments, Swann said.

“For a long time, departments such as human resources (HR) and facilities management have been fighting the same agenda,” Swann said. “Ultimately, they want to find out how the company can unleash its people to work at their best – and they’re starting to realize that entails a convergence of all these areas, from recruiting and retaining people to designing the workplace to help them work better. We’ve seen traditional HR give way to ‘director of people’ roles focused on how to nurture a great culture within the organization – and what’s really interesting right now is the emergence of the employee experience.”

Online hospitality marketplace Airbnb, for example, appointed Mark Levy as its “Director of People.” Levy brought together separate HR functions that had reported to different parts of the organization. The functions included talent, recruiting and “ground control,” a group that focused on the workplace culture. The combined functions became the Employee Experience department, with Levy as global head of Employee Experience. The department focuses on the health and happiness of Airbnb employees with programs that range from rewards to talent programs, food and facilities and safety and security.

Meanwhile, the UK operations of marketing communications organization Ogilvy Group worked with BDG to create an environment that fosters well-being balance at its London offices.

“A number of the group’s companies are co-located in the same building,” Swann said. “Each company has its own branded workplace, but the building is 40% shared space so people can flow into communal areas to encourage cross-collaboration between the companies. There are outdoor areas, a roof terrace, bars, restaurants and coffee shops, and places to sit over at the River Thames. There’s a lot of natural light and a curated series of events for employees. All these things come together to make a complete experience around the people.”

While Ogilvy’s approach is not yet widespread, more companies are moving in similar directions.

“Other companies are beginning to converge their well-being approaches around the employee experience,” Swann said. “For example Sky, a UK-based entertainment and telecoms company, is doing some really progressive things in building a workplace and creating a brand experience for its people. And LEGO is rolling out its ‘new ways of working’ philosophy around flexible and agile working across its global sites.”

LEGO’s philosophy is proving a hit with workers. In its May 2016 survey, 88% of staff of the family-owned Swedish-based company said they liked being able to work in a variety of settings to suit their mood. In 2017, the approach has been rolled out to new offices in Shanghai and Singapore.

“New ways of working will further help facilitate our collaborative spirit in the company and reflects our value of caring and respecting our people,” said Stephen Joseph Burke, vice president of HR for LEGO China, at the Shanghai hub’s opening. “An old Chinese proverb says that if you are harmonious in the family you will be prosperous, and we believe that a harmonious work environment is necessary to achieve excellent results and sustainable growth.”

Providing free and healthy snacks, as Google’s head office in Gurgaon, India, does, is an immediate and low-cost way to encourage better eating habits for employees. (Image © Hindustan Times / Getty Images)


Putting well-being at the heart of the workplace experience also has the potential to help businesses recruit and retain the talent and skills they need. In the “Global Recruiting Trends 2017” report from professional social network LinkedIn, 83% of recruiters said that talent is the top priority at their company. Employee referrals are the leading source of quality hires for 48%.

A workplace experience with well-being at its core helps to generate employee referrals and reviews, Swann said. “If you give someone an amazing employee experience they’re going to tell people, just as they will if you give them an amazing customer experience.”

The more competitive the industry, the more likely a company is to use employee well-being as a recruiting tool.

“Proactive approaches to well-being are becoming the norm in competitive sectors where businesses need to attract people who can choose where they work,” Yeung said. “They’re using these measures to attract the most desirable employees, and they’re setting the trends.”

Smart technology also plays a key role in meeting workers’ expectations and encouraging them to spread the word, said Jeanne Meister, co-author of The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees.

“Millennials are digital natives, and they expect intelligent digital experiences,” Meister said. “The next step is to use intelligent technology to reinforce an individual commitment to well-being through work. Virgin Pulse and Fitbit are leading the way by providing fitness monitoring technology that employers can use to encourage healthy habits. These companies enable easy integration with an employer’s other benefits programs. Employees have a personalized interface to connect with the options most relevant to them, and employers can measure and analyze engagement with those programs to see how effective they are.”

Meister noted that the technology links health and fitness to productivity and helps to nurture employees as advocates for the brand. “Fitness apps and wearables add a new dimension to brand advocacy because they have a social media capability that lets employees share how great the company is and how they’ve met their well-being goals with friends and members of their team.”

The benefits of well-being programs are often intangible, and it can be difficult to prove definitive links between a certain measure and trends such as a reduction in employees taking sick leave. But aspects such as business performance, employee referrals and brand advocacy are persuasive indicators of the value people place on an employer that cares about employees’ well-being. 

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