Yoga, Yoghurt and Wellness Programs
By Ciaran Strachan
This article by HBR is a timely reminder on what is, and is not, a wellness program.
It is NOT, Yoga, Yoghurt, health food, or an app bolted onto your HR Information System that improves the “employee experience.”
It IS education, engaging your staff, and introducing real benefits that employees need to access in order to reduce stress in times of need. Some examples include access to special leave and flexible working arrangements. I am not addressing bullying/harassment here, but if you want to tackle mental health as a whole in Australia, this cannot be left out. However, as bullying and harassment present both a Fair Work and WHS legislative challenge for employers, I will tackle that another time.
Unfortunately, the almost one year old legislative changes to Flexible Working arrangements were largely publicised at the time of their introduction by some IR focussed professions as yet another legislative change to be complied with. This is not incorrect, but the intent of the change including its benefits were not conveyed to employers as it should have been, and articles such as the one above from Harvard Business Review outlining the benefits of flexible working arrangements in combating mental health problems, should have been at the forefront of the PR campaign in 2018.
For those that are not aware, the intent of the legislative changes in 2018 had many benefits beyond those listed as “wants” by the ACTU who made the original application to the FWC, which was rejected. Flexible working arrangements increase productivity (they have been identified as a key attribute for high performing organisations), they ensure more women stay at work by breaking up the work day for family commitments, and provide a tangible resource that can be accessed for those that need it to remain in the workforce, and may be suffering from non-bullying related mental health issues. They increase employee engagement (which has a direct relationship with customer satisfaction, so if one goes up, the other should too) and will prove critical in the coming years for businesses to develop and maintain competitive advantages as the talent shortage increases and the gig economy grows.
As a manager in the public service I used flexible working arrangements to support staff that suffered from stress and anxiety, enabling them to retain their jobs whilst working through a difficult period of their life. One staff member who told me that my support, including arranging flexible working so she could work at home when she needed to, enabled her to get through a difficult a period of heavy anxiety and medication changes. She still keeps in contact with me today, even though we last worked together almost 10 years ago.
The fact that flexible working arrangements had to be adjusted at a legislative level to increase accessibility for employees is so serious, that it should have been highlighted for what it was at the time. An economic red flag that indicated employers in Australia have issues understanding how to increase productivity, keep women in the workforce, and what a mental health problem is, and how to assist the employee to work through it.
The underlining issue right now in Australia is that we do not need to focus on creating more working condition entitlements, or reform awards that some believe are too complicated, or increase fees to deter disingenuous claims for unfair dismissal. Many of these IR arguments are put forward by entities that have a financial interest in more employment law reform and in turn, the fees they can charge administering “new changes” to clients. If the current system is not being utilised correctly due to a lack of understanding of its intent including advantages for employers, then the question needs to be asked, why keep reforming it?
A change in strategy is needed and that change is pretty simple, more education for employers on the benefits of the FWA, NES, awards and conditions such as flexible working arrangements. And the key player who should be selling the benefits when it comes to this debate is largely missing, and that player is HR. HR needs to catch up as it is either silent, or being left behind as its competitors are ahead when it comes to getting the message out to employers which should be the “what” and “why” for the change. Competitors you say? Yes, many of HRs competitors are employment lawyers (and their large firms), state chambers, HRIS owners, payroll managers, IR experts and even accountants, many of which identify as HR.
Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned professions having a legislative compliance function, and not one of understanding the intent and benefits of the legislative change, these professions tend to focus their message to employers on the “what” only. Followed by a healthy dosage of fear, and one final booster shot of “see us for a solution.” I’m all for promoting your products and services, but not at the expense of selling them via consequences only.
It is time for HR to catchup, lead the national discussion for increasing productivity, reducing mental health issues with real wellness programs while working with both management and safety professionals. This could be achieved with a change in focus of services to initiate more education with employers. Including how best to utilise the FWA, NES and awards to achieve productivity, mental health, engagement and retention improvements to organisations, no matter their size or complexity (micro, small, medium or large).