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Love the Workplace

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 - 08:50

Workforce wellbeing is at the heart of organisational fitness, a concept promoting sustainable business success by adapting to new market demands. By Cameron Cooper.

In its quest to maintain a healthy organisation, financial services and healthcare company Australian Unity adheres to a simple but smart rule. When hiring or promoting talent, they want candidates to love the job and to truly fit the role.

"We think that if you're enjoying what you're doing at work then you're going to be happier," says Sharon Beaumont, Group Executive, Human Resources at Australian Unity, which provides services to about 560,000 people across the country through its healthcare, financial services and retirement living arms.

The approach is at the heart of Australian Unity's attempts to achieve organisational fitness through factors such as performance recognition, corporate wellbeing and work/life balance initiatives.

Across its 17 national worksites, it provides a tailored wellbeing calendar for employees encouraging free or subsidised activities such as yoga, nutrition seminars and financial planning and wealth management workshops.

Beaumont says staff can take advantage of programs during work hours. The strategy is built around the belief that what is good for employees will ultimately be good for the organisation, and, just as importantly, its clients.

In its broadest sense, organisational fitness is seen as a means for a business to foster sustainable success by continuously adapting its capabilities and responding to changing market demands and variables.

One of the key elements is the provision of a workplace that is healthy for employees through a focus on factors such as managing employee engagement, performance and rewards. In this sphere, 'softer' elements such as wellness and work/life balance are increasingly important.

A lack of strategy

Jamie Sims, Managing Principal of talent and career management consultancy Right Management, says many employers still treat organisational fitness and wellbeing programs as a 'nice thing to do' rather than incorporating them into their value proposition.

There is often a lack of strategy behind health-related initiatives such as offering employees gym membership or weight-loss programs. Sims said one company decided to fund a quit-smoking campaign for every employee, even though only a small proportion of staff smoked. "What we often see in organisations… is that their heart's in the right place and they're spending the money but they're not thinking about where they're targeting it."

There is evidence that Australian companies can do better in terms of organisational fitness and employee wellbeing. A 2008 Quality of working life survey on 2500 managers in Britain and Victoria revealed that while the Australian managers were more positive about their organisations' performance and job satisfaction, there is a health trade-off. Suffering a litany of health issues such as back pain, stomach bugs, influenza and viral infections, the Australians linked such ailments to the long hours they worked. They also suggested work productivity was suffering.

Dr Anthony Grant, Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney and who has worked with many of Australia's leading CEOs, says the key to organisational fitness is striking a balance between operational and individual objectives.

"So it's not a case of either-or, it's a case of how to maintain that balance," he says.

Grant believes there is a growing awareness among senior executives that purely focusing on the bottom line will not deliver long-term results. "Organisations realise that they need to be spending as much time looking at their individual employees' wellbeing as they do on (assessing) how much money they're making."

A healthier outlook

International business giants are starting to appreciate the importance of workplace wellbeing, with PepsiCo having won acclaim for its Fit for Life initiative that promotes sleep and nutrition workshops along with employee heart and health checks. Professional services firm KPMG uses 'wellness scorecards' to track whether employees are working too much overtime or skipping vacations.

Australian Unity's Beaumont says wellbeing should be part of a three-pronged strategy that aids the organisation, employees and customers.

"I think it fits in really nicely with our whole approach to wellbeing for our customers and wellbeing for our staff. Our culture and our employee-value propositions are based on the fact that we want people to achieve their best but it's differentiated by wellbeing."

Such an all-encompassing approach is wise. According to Sims, the success of wellbeing programs often depends on the diagnostic and measuring processes that accompany them.

"A lot of organisations put in place programs, but they don't do any sort of assessment or any sort of diagnostics," she says. "They can't really tell you what are the key wellness issues in the organisation, they can't tell you what proportion of the workplace is currently experiencing stress, or what proportion of the workforce is currently suffering from physical pain." She adds that managers and CEOs also have to be conscious of not stepping over boundary lines and, for example, banning snack-vending machines in the building.

Power of the positive

University of Wisconsin researcher Daniel Kirschenbaum's famous Brain power bowling study into the performance of tenpin bowlers is instructive of the benefits of organisational fitness strategies. All bowlers received the same technical coaching, but one group had to diarise everything they did wrong while competing while the other had to focus on the positives. At the end of the study, the positively geared bowlers easily outshone their rivals.

The University of Sydney's Grant believes the study demonstrates that mental fitness must complement any physical fitness programs in the workplace.

"If you keep beating people up and focusing on what they've done wrong then you're not going to get results. They need to be enthused, they need to feel motivated, and they need to feel like they want to do it."

At Australian Unity, Beaumont has no doubt that a fit organisation will enjoy a range of benefits ranging from higher employee morale to stronger financial results.

"Happier and healthier staff are going to be more productive, they're more likely to stay with you and they're more inclined to advocate on behalf of your company, not just as an employer but in terms of its products. So the investment is paid back in those ways."