What is employee wellness?

Wellness has recently risen to the top of HR's agenda.

Some call it workplace wellness, others corporate wellness, workplace wellbeing or simply employee wellbeing, but at its core the meaning is consistent.

A wellness programme is a workplace initiative or organisational policy that’s designed to support and promote the health of employees. 

Workplace wellbeing is all about building healthier habits that empower employees, teams and organisations to be their happiest, healthiest and most productive selves. 

Workplace wellbeing is a combination of social, emotional, physical and financial wellbeing. A policy that supports these could include anything from encouraging healthy dietary choices, providing access to online GPs and counselling, to flexible working policies. Such programmes are becoming an increasingly important part of the overall employee experience and HR strategies, mostly due to a heightened awareness of issues around health and the impact of work on stress levels and wellbeing. 

As well as the more obvious areas of wellness – such as physical – employers are now realising their responsibility in their people’s financial, mental, and emotional wellness. Put together, these pillars support high levels of employee engagement while fostering a workforce where people are committed to achieving organisational success.


“It’s about making sure you’re looking at wellness from a total perspective and giving a reasonable weight to each of the elements, as opposed to doing the token stuff you read in a magazine article.”


Jean-Christophe Fonfreyde, Head of Reward, Wellcome Group

Why is employee wellness such a high priority today?

The connections between employee wellness programmes and reduced absenteeism have been heavily researched. They have found that organisations with comprehensive wellness programmes experience reduced absenteeism and higher productivity levels for the following reasons:

  • Healthy employees are less likely to take time off work without reason
  • Employees who manage their stress levels experience less burnout
  • Employees who practice physical and mental wellbeing have higher energy levels leading to increased productivity
  • Employees who feel supported by their employer are likely to be more loyal and stay within the company longer

Industries such as retail, hospitality, and healthcare are being hit hard by a lack of support. In addition to statistically higher absence rates, employees in these fields are more likely to job hop as a result of poor engagement.

Perkbox research found that 36% of the UK workforce are likely to leave their jobs within one year – a worrying statistic when considering it costs on average more than £30,000 to turnover one member of staff, according to Oxford Economics.

This is why it’s in employers best interests to support and help improve their employees’ wellness, as this builds healthier, happier and more loyal employees who are engaged, work harder and are more committed to their roles.

Employees are our finest asset

Engage for Success executive director, Cathy Brown, believes employers are increasingly acknowledging that people actually are the most important asset within an organisation.

“Organisations are beginning to understand that how people feel physically and mentally at work has a huge impact on their performance, and therefore on the performance, productivity, and efficiency of the organisation. 

“And all the research demonstrates that people who are happy, fulfilled and engaged in their jobs have higher levels of physical and mental health, and are less likely to be absent.”

Poor employee wellness costs companies

Brendan Street, Professional Lead of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Nuffield Health, agrees the research is irrefutable, pointing towards the Government’s Thriving at Work report. One of the key findings of which is that 300,000 workers lose their jobs each year due to mental health issues. The report puts the cost of this, combined with lost productivity and performance through mental ill health, at £42bn a year for UK employers.

“So there is that which is driving wellness initiatives commercially,” he says. “Also, the bigger driving force is corporate responsibility. There is a big push to make employers responsible for the emotional safety of their employees in the same way they are for physical safety.”

How work is impacting Britain’s workforce

Stress is one of the main impacts to emotional and physical wellbeing.

In 2020, we surveyed 1,815 employed adults from around the UK, to explore how the UK’s workforce and different demographics experience stress. The questions explored which areas in life are most likely to lead to stress, the ways that stress impacts employees and how they can cope with it.

The findings revealed that a staggering 79% of British adults in employment commonly experience work-related stress, and this is the most common type of stress in the UK.

Another scary statistic comes in the fact that just 1% of UK’s employed adults say they ‘never’ experience workplace stress.

Who experiences this kind of stress?

As it's 79% of UK employees are experiencing this stress – if you look at your workforce – unfortunately, most will be suffering from this in some way. 

But looking deeper, the survey revealed that on a weekly basis 25-34 year olds are feeling the most work-related pressure, with 31% of this age group experiencing this weekly. This is followed by just over a quarter (27%) of 18-24 year olds.

Different industries also experience different levels of stress. The Local and National Government came out on top as most commonly experiencing work-related stress – with 92% in this industry experiencing this. This is followed by those working within telecoms (88%) and media and marketing (85%).

What are the effects of this kind of stress to wellness?

Despite being related to work, the impacts of this stress are affecting employees long after the working day is done. This, sadly, is having grave impacts on wellness.

Of those who experience work-related stress, 55% experience anxiety as a result. Anxiety can cause numerous physical and mental impacts on the body and it’s important that those suffering from this seek support.

Employees are also experiencing impacts to their sleep, with 43% of employees experiencing a loss of sleep due to work-stress, which can have huge impacts on physical health, mental wellbeing and productivity.

A third turn to comfort eating, while more than half (51%) feel that stress disrupts concentration.

This information highlights the vital importance on employer’s making the wellness of their employees a priority. This is not only beneficial for employees’ health and wellbeing, but it will also lead to higher company performance.

What are currently the most common measures in place to help manage workplace wellness?

Employers are currently trying to help, but the research shows that further efforts are required.

Working from home policies are the most popular way that employer’s work to help their employee's manage their wellbeing, with 39% offering this benefit. This is followed by flexible working hours (37%), regular one-to-ones between employees and managers (37%) and counselling services for staff (33%).

While it is positive to see that some employers are offering support to manage wellbeing, these figures are low compared to the more than three-quarters of UK employees who are currently experiencing stress.

So what more can be done?

What can we learn from the research?

These findings show just how vital it is for workplaces to take a proactive approach towards offering employees’ support for their wellbeing. This support can include confidential advice, employee assistance programmes, increased holiday days, plus physical health and fitness opportunities. 

As the findings revealed that employees can turn to unhealthy measures to manage their stress levels - it highlights how much they may benefit from support and guidance from their employer to manage the impacts. Almost a third (32%) increase the use of stimulants, such as nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, to manage stress levels – highlighting just how important a confidential support service can be to assist your people and help reduce unhealthy habits. 

On the other hand, it’s positive to see that many are turning to healthy methods for stress reduction. 42% turn to exercise to improve their mental wellbeing, 37% choose to get some rest and over 1 in 5 practice mindfulness, yoga, or meditation. While these are some impressive numbers but these statistics could be higher. With some encouragement from employers, offering discounted or convenient facilities to employees to allow them to gain access to wellbeing or health facilities that they may not be able to otherwise, the number of employees practicing healthy habits could increase. 

This would lead to healthier employees and more clear mindsets – providing a boost to productivity and morale. Happiness should be thought of as an investment and not something that can be achieved overnight. Integrating rewards, wellness and social engagement into daily work routines can significantly reduce stress. The workforce evidently needs to be actively encouraged to step back from the switched-on mindset and take the time to embrace their achievements.

The new year presents the opportunity to ensure innovative stress-busting methods are put into place at work, for a less-stressed 2021.

The elements of a successful wellness programme

The most successful employee wellbeing programmes are ones that offer financial, emotional, social, and physical wellness initiatives. The following elements are based on our conversations with industry leaders, and are divided into the three aforementioned categories. While not all items are necessary, the list aims to give you inspiration as to which directions to take your wellness programme.


Poor financial wellness often affects our psychological wellness, manifesting itself in higher levels of stress and anxiety. This in turn affects productivity through poorer job performance, short-term decision-making, reduced ability to concentrate, lower productivity and absenteeism. JC explains the importance of financial wellness initiatives: “There’s a clear case for supporting employee financial wellness in order to create healthy workplaces where people can flourish, reach their potential and make significant contributions to the organisation’s performance. There’s also the ethical argument: we should take action because it is the right thing to do.”

Access to discounts

Help your employees’ paychecks go further by giving them access to a wide range of discounts and freebies. Discounts are most impactful when they cover life essentials, such as groceries and travel costs.

Salary sacrifice

Introduce salary sacrifices schemes to help your employees spread the cost of big purchases and investments, such as childcare, gym memberships, technology, cars, and bicycles.

Financial advice

Employee financial advice providers are surprisingly accessible. Helping your people to take control of their finances professionally demonstrates genuine interest in their wellness.

Communicate existing schemes

Re-communicating your existing benefits packages, such as pension or cycle to work schemes, is a largely cost-free way to bolster your overall programme.


The solutions to mental health issues at work need to be communicated top-down. Leaders should promote a culture of openness and visibility around mental health, making it a pillar of their overall engagement and benefit strategy.

Unlimited annual leave

Unlimited annual leave is something of an HR hot potato. While it’s not possible for certain organisations, studies suggest unlimited annual leave can benefit overworked employees who can use the option of extra time off to de-stress and reboot.

Access to gym discounts

Your wellness programme should fit around your employees lives. Giving them access to discounted gym memberships allows them to take positive steps – on their own terms.

An employee helpline

Stress and anxiety are among the biggest causes of employee absence. Giving them access to a 24/7 confidential helpline is a positive way to prevent such issues before they arise.

Flexible working

Employees with flexible work schedules have higher levels of job satisfaction and less absenteeism, along with reduced rates of turnover.

Meditation and mindfulness resources

Giving employees the tools and resources to support themselves with meditation and practising mindfulness can help those who may not have considered this stress managing method, or not know how to practise this effectively alone. This can help to relieve stress, boost happiness and reduce absenteeism.


Employees seek appreciation, not just from their managers, but from their peers too. If a certain action or behaviour helps the organisation reach its goals, simply requesting it will only do so much. Tangible rewards and memorable experiences instill long-lasting positive association to the organisation within the employee, and a desire to perform well.

Instant recognition

Instant feedback carries a ‘surprise and delight’ quality, and makes whatever the rewarded action, behaviour or task all the more likely to be repeated. On an emotional level the element of personal progression outweighs material gain.


Mentoring programmes give less experienced employees valuable feedback, insight and support, while passing down wisdom and institutional knowledge.

Reward and recognition

Incentivise your team and recognise their hard work by rewarding premium products and services to individual members.


Never underestimate the power of ‘thank you’. What’s immediately noticeable is the impact these gestures have on organisational culture.

Training schemes

Allow your people to free up a few hours a week to use on-demand training materials. The beauty of these schemes is trainees can engage whenever suits them, breaking larger schemes into smaller modules.

The benefits of an employee wellness programme

Wellness programmes have typically been considered a nice to have, rather than an employer’s duty. But the more we’ve explored the topic, the more evidence has surfaced about the positive correlation between employee engagement and business performance.

The 9am-5pm worker will spend roughly a third of their life at work, so it’s inevitable that organisational culture and environment will have an impact on their behaviour and lifestyle.

Benefits of supporting employees’ wellbeing 

The benefits of employee wellbeing programmes extend far beyond physical health. Employees with access to wellness programmes experience:

  • Help employees to find ways to deal with stress and anxiety
  • Help employees to reduce the amount of stress from work seeping into personal lives and improve personal relationships
  • Reducing stress and its impacts on sleep
  • Making it easier to stay focused and productive
  • Reducing stress related to financial worries and achieve greater financial security

Benefits to employers of supporting employee wellbeing

Businesses with wellness programmes benefit financially and culturally, experiencing:

  • Improved productivity due to health and happy employees
  • Increased employee motivation 
  • Reduced absenteeism in the workforce
  • Improved company culture and social connections
  • Retention of healthy, loyal employees 
  • Help to prevent burnout 
  • Decreased rates of illness and injuries 
  • A competitive edge during recruitment
  • Greater ability to attract top talent
  • Improved employee motivation and morale

Read next: 6 great employee wellbeing programs (and why they work)

8 steps to launching a wellness programme

Hopefully this eBook has whet your appetite and you’re keen to get a programme underway. We’ve boiled down the expertise provided by our contributors to form an eight point plan for launching a wellness programme.


1. Get buy-in

Your first challenge is to get the buy-in off the senior leadership team. Express how your wellness initiative won’t just change the lives of your employees, but will also help the business reach its goals.

2. Set up dedicated teams

Whether it’s HR or a wider collaboration, the best programmes are spearheaded by wellness champions to ensure goals are achieved and the benefits are felt. The people who make up these teams should have a good understanding of the business and the backing of the organisation.

3. Collect the data

Go to the people whom the initiative will apply: your employees. Use a combination of existing data – abscents rates and turnover data – and primary research in the form of internal surveys and in-person meetings to pinpoint the areas that need addressing.

4. Make a plan

Based on your own research and analysis, build a roadmap of the actions you will take. Formally document the goals of the initiative, and the things you would like to introduce. Linking the programme to existing company programmes and demonstrating VOI will add extra credibility. Once you have a clear idea of the actions you’d like to take, do the research into costings per item. A powerful feature for your budget is to compare it to the cost of not embarking on the wellness programme.

5. Design the interventions

With your plan in place, now’s the time to put the wheels in motion and solve the problems. Consider the elements mentioned in this eBook, as well as other initiatives that address a holistic view of wellness. Think about initiatives to solve financial, emotional, physical and mental wellness.

6. Communicate the programme

This step is perhaps the most important, yet least well performed: communicate the wellness programme to your employees. Create a buzz and make sure everyone understands the schemes, educate them as to the importance of wellness, and how it will positively affect their lives.

7. Measure the impact

Measure areas such as participation, budget expenditure, behavioural changes, and participant satisfaction. This would be a good time to send out a company wide survey to gage engagement levels. The wider analysis could link back to organisational goals: has business performance improved since you introduced the scheme?

8. Celebrate your successes

Using the same communications channels, report back to your people by sharing success stories of how your wellness intervention has made a positive effect.

Download now: Unleash employee happiness in 2021 – your wellbeing strategy guide for remote and non-remote workforces

How to get buy-in to your wellness programme

Armed with the proven benefits wellness programmes have to both employees and employers, along with the in-depth research highlighting their economic and medical advantage, the next step is convincing your senior leaders of their value. So we asked our industry contributors to explain how to go about convincing those at the top to invest in wellness programmes.

Explain why it's essential

JC Fonfreyde is Head of Reward at Welcome Group, a charity that focuses on finding new ways of improving health, so he’s no stranger to convincing people of the need for wellness initiatives. “The key issue,” he explains, “is to understand why you are doing it.” Having absolute clarity over the initiative will make it much easier to pitch to senior leaders. “If the organisation is benevolent towards its employees, there will already be alignment. However this is not necessarily the case with all organisations – some organisations look at transacting with people rather than taking care of them.”

Appeal to the rational 

If this rings true with your organisation, JC suggests you emphasise the cost of not introducing wellness initiatives. “Use the studies that demonstrate poor physical and mental health lead to low productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism. This costs the organisation as well as the individual and, potentially, their team.”

Appeal to the emotions

As well as appealing to their rational, logical drivers, you should also hone in on the emotional element – why it makes sense to introduce a wellness programme. JC refers to this as appealing to, “the heart and mind”.

“It doesn’t mean you have to do everything for your employees,” he says. “In some cases you will enable them to make decisions by providing them with information, education or tools. It’s about finding the balance between giving employees overwhelming access and taking decisions for them – neither of which will help.”

“Buy-in from the top is absolutely necessary. It works best in businesses that have an executive who has had mental health problems themselves and are prepared to talk about it openly, as it sets the culture.

“I’ve been involved in a number of different companies where this is the case, particularly in law. Suicide is quite a problem among lawyers. There’s a lot of law companies now where the head lawyer will come out and say, ‘I have had depression and it’s ok to talk about it’.”


Brendan Street, Professional Lead of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Nuffield Health


Few departments these days escape the challenge of demonstrating return on investment (ROI) on their initiatives, and HR is no different. The problem with measuring HR in the same way as functions such as sales and marketing is the focus on people – not leads, sales, and revenue.

Value on investment (VOI) is a newer, broader metric. It measures not just revenue, but also elements that contribute to work satisfaction, employee wellbeing and business performance – such as productivity and employee retention. Being armed with a rigid VOI plan for your wellness programme will answer measurability questions from budget holders, and therefore increase the likelihood of their buy-in.

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