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When perks aren’t enough: Wellbeing needs a culture shift

8 min read

29 November 2018

Deputy Editor, Business Advice

In collaboration with AXA PPP healthcare, Real Business consults three SME leaders passionate about workplace wellbeing to find out why a culture shift is so important and how personal experiences have informed their attitudes to work and wellbeing.

Working life isn’t always easy, but running your own business poses a unique set of challenges to physical and mental wellbeing. Amid the balancing act of cash flow management, payroll and supplier relationships, your own health and wellbeing can often be an afterthought. Our wellbeing checklist for entrepreneurs has already looked at actionable strategies business owners can incorporate into their day, but what about the health of your workforce?

Invested in their company, SME employees are diligent, dedicated but all too often arrive at work even when it’s taken a toll on their health. According to CIPD, presenteeism has tripled since 2010, costing UK businesses £73bn every year as workers spread and fail to overcome sickness.

“If a business wants to embed healthy behaviours in the workplace, they need to change the culture.”– Alex Heaton

Productivity and profit rest on a healthy and happy business, so when it comes to cultivating a culture of positive wellbeing into the workplace, is it right that staff will look to their employer to make the first move?

Ingrain culture from the top

According to Gina Conway, founder of Gina Conway Salons and Spas, initiatives to boost the physical and mental wellbeing of the team can be a two-way street. Since opening her first salon in 2001, the entrepreneur has fostered a culture of positive wellbeing that is now central to her identity as an employer and something that has driven high staff retention.

While Conway has made a strong effort to promote wellbeing herself, she is keen to hear what kind of innovative ideas her staff can come forward with. The founder makes an effort to start every meeting with wellness, combining aromatherapy and group breathing exercises.

Gina Conway

“We do things to wake your body up, to remind them constantly about the importance of being mindful, being calm and being fit and healthy,” she says. By planting the seeds of a wellbeing culture, Conway’s staff now enjoy taking the initiative, proposing sponsored walks to work and cooking for colleagues.

As the founder of a growing business, Alex Heaton has proved that an effective work and wellbeing strategy can work in any sector. At LiveSmart, health and wellness digital platform, Heaton has introduced a number of initiatives that encourage staff to strike a good work/life balance, such as flexible gym hours and exercise challenges. Like Conway, Heaton believes wellbeing should come from the top. He detailed why a wellbeing strategy requires more than just a well-intended programme.

“People look to management to set standards of what behaviour is acceptable and good within the workplace,” Heaton explains. “If a business wants to embed healthy behaviours in the workplace, they need to change the culture rather than just have a programme. At a minimum, this needs to be supported by senior management, but ideally led by them.”

Beyond health

Like Conway, Humphries agreed that a business built around the wellbeing of its workforce is imperative. As the founder of The Bakery, an innovation accelerator founded in 2012 which helps startup founders expand each area of their business, Humphries has provided his own staff with development opportunities typically only found at larger corporate companies. In a world where employees have begun to take control of their careers, he emphasised that personal development is as important to a wellbeing strategy as health.

“It’s much more incumbent on the employer that you’re creating an environment where people want to stay. That means mental and physical wellbeing, but also developmental wellbeing – can the people develop and achieve their ambition and their goals as much as possible in your organisation?”

“If you aren’t creating that environment, then you need to understand that those people are going to leave.”– Andrew Humphries

Gaining a sense of perspective

According to Conway, Humphries and Heaton, the link between culture and employee retention is undeniable. All three tell us how their personal experiences have shaped their approach to work and wellbeing.

LiveSmart founder Alex Heaton

Heaton noted that business stress had resulted in sleepless nights and difficult periods, during which the founder had previously responded by avoiding the gym and engaging in unhealthy habits. When times get tough, Heaton relies on two strategies: put things into perspective and channel your frustrations into exercise.

“Even the worst-case scenario is probably not that bad in terms of your long-term plans,” he says.

As for his exercise regime, Heaton believes a good workout can help you cope with your workload and even become a better leader. “Physical exercise is a great way to relieve stress and improve sleep and energy levels. I don’t allow anything to get in the way of my gym sessions now.”

Another champion of the power of exercise, Conway has found that tennis is the most effective reliever of the inevitable frustrations that build up as an SME owner.

“Nothing beats whacking a tennis ball to let off steam.” – Gina Conway

The Bakery co-founder Andrew Humphries

For Humphries, a cancer diagnosis two years ago changed his whole perspective of the relationship between our working lives and wellbeing. The news came as a shock to Humphries, especially as someone who always put his health and fitness first.

“There can sometimes be an incorrect underlying attitude that taking time off for illness doesn’t make you a good employee.” – Andrew Humphries

Ultimately, employers and employees need to embrace that culture shift all three business owners touched on. This requires employers trusting employees to know when to take time off for recovery, and employees being accountable for their work productivity as well as their health and wellbeing.

Visit small business advice from AXA PPP healthcare for more tips on how to stay healthy