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If only people were companies’ most important asset

I have lost count of the number of City companies that profess their people are their most important assets. This statement is usually shouted from websites and then expounded upon in the careers and benefits sections. But is this really the case when it comes to the harsh realities of City life?

If only people were companies most important assetTo cut to the chase, our research suggests that the answer is not really. While I think the sentiments behind these claims by City institutions are fairly genuine, our work in this area paints rather a different picture especially when it comes to women.

Think about how owners of a prized asset such as a very expensive watch look after it? They wear it only on special occasions, they keep it safe (probably in its own box), they get it regularly serviced and they insure against loss or damage. They guard against it so that it continues to tell the time accurately to protect its performance and value.

Rather like the watch, our research specialises in people asset protection. We evaluate empirically how people’s work impacts their overall well-being to evidence how employers can best support their performance. By well-being, we mean all ways in which people perceive that the job that they do affects their overall wellness. This is discernibly different to job satisfaction; it encompasses areas such as physical and psychological health as well as more wide-ranging factors such as impact on home life, opportunities for advancement and how their line managers and colleagues make them feel. In short, we conduct a robust temperature check on how staff really experience their work and the wider holistic impact that this has.

Our findings show that these kinds of considerations are vital to performance indicators such as productivity, absence and attrition. However, they are usually over-looked even though they can provide the key to realising people’s potential and resilience. This seems to be particularly true of women working in the City who, generally speaking, are juggling a number of other roles outside of work that add to the pressures of day to day life.

To give an example, results from a recent piece of work with a City firm provided clear confirmation that the well-being of its senior women was significantly worse than their male counterparts on a number of counts. This stemmed primarily from home responsibilities and opportunities for career progression. Importantly, these factors were shown to be key drivers of resilience and ability to perform at a consistently high level. Further analyses showed that these elements linked strongly to their intentions to quit the firm. This was despite the fact that this particular organisation prided itself on its flexible working arrangements and development practices in a bid to recruit and hang on to the fairer sex. And to rub more salt into the wound, an employee well-being programme was in place for all staff.

Why had there been such a disconnect in this organisation? The overriding reason was that the HR teams had failed to really understand what actually impaired their overall well being. They had fallen into the trap of second-guessing what was important to people. This meant various people practices were not tackling some of the most troublesome issues encountered by those for which they were designed.

Yes – the HR teams did conduct an annual engagement survey. However, the questions neglected to cover areas of people’s work which were perceived to be detrimental to their well-being. They therefore missed vital clues on the real underlying concerns. And yes – the employee well-being programme offered a range of benefits for healthcare and lifestyle but these did not tap the areas of concern uncovered by our study.

So what can HR professionals do to avoid these pitfalls?

  1. MEASURE Gather data on how people believe that their work impacts their overall health and well-being. Don't make the mistake of thinking you have divine insight. You'll be surprised by what you discover.
  2. APPRAISE EXISTING PRACTICES If you carry out an engagement survey, critically review it. Does it really ask the questions that will elicit findings that truly reflect your workplace and the issues and challenges associated with it? If not, consider looking at other options which may be better suited to your sector and better able to really drill down into the needs of your workforce.
  3. LINK TO KPIs Cut your data by sub-groups (such as your female population) and correlate these with your key business indicators (for example attrition, sales, absence, annual appraisals). This way, you’ll be better able to determine the drivers of outcomes and identify the priorities where you will get most return on your investment.
  4. SOCIALISE RESULTS Publish these findings to your business leaders. This will help them to understand that the wellbeing of employees is not a fluffy nice-to-have but a real platform for organisational effectiveness.
  5. TAKE ACTION Measuring attitudes will not bring about change on its own (although it is worrying how many subscribe to this school of thought). You will need to act on your findings. You will have raised expectations amongst your staff which will quickly turn to cynicism if things just stay the same.

Cynics of this kind of approach might claim that there is nothing that can be done for people whose default is to be miserable. However, psychologists have shown that a sense of well-being is not hardwired and an inclination towards happiness is only about 25% determined by hereditary factors compared to 40-60% for most other genetic traits. This means that people’s well-being at work is modifiable assuming that the right levers are employed to bring about the necessary changes.

Salaries, benefits and other material aspects are given considerable prominence in the City. So too are career prospects. Our work shows that while these elements play an important role especially when attracting talent, the well-being of employees is a serious plank in the HR armoury.

Going back to our watch analogy at the beginning, prized assets must be cherished and protected so that they may continue to perform. The well-being of a workforce is not a gratuitous bolt-on. It is central to people’s performance and retention and should be taken seriously. This way, organisations will be able to really demonstrate that their people are their most important asset. This is good news for the employees as well as for the companies and their bottom lines.

Dr. Bridget Juniper is head of Work and Well-Being Ltd which specializes in the measurement of employee well-being. Dr Juniper has conducted award-winning research on the topic at Cranfield University. She publishes regularly in scholarly journals and frequently presents to academic and corporate

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November 2011 Newsletter Articles - quicklinks

Posted on: 26.10.2011

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