Practitioner insight: why mindset is as vital as culture and benefits for wellbeing


When it comes to the success of a wellbeing programme, I’m sometimes asked which is the most important: the benefits on offer to employees, or the culture of the organisation that employs them.

Why wellbeing is about culture as well as benefits - and how HR must embrace both

In some ways the question itself is based on a misunderstanding – because getting one right will get you nowhere if the other isn’t fit for purpose. Culture and benefits are irrevocably linked. I’d also add a third, equally intrinsic factor: the mindset of the employees.

How many legs are on your stool?
The way these three elements rely on each other is somewhat like a three-legged stool. If all three legs are in place, it does its job perfectly and should carry on doing so. If you have just two legs, things are going to get wobbly… and one leg alone is just plain useless.

A business might offer a great range of benefits – perhaps including healthy eating programmes, free health checks, subsidised gym membership and shared-interest clubs. But if the employees are frowned upon for taking up these benefits, or feel pressured to concentrate on nothing but immediate tasks, then what’s on offer may as well not be there. Equally, you might have supportive and sympathetic leadership in an open environment… but this has to be accompanied by specific benefits which are fully understood and easy to access. And finally, either or both of these factors won’t get you far if the individual mindset of employees isn’t positive enough to take advantage of what’s there.

So, how can HR – and everyone else within the business – work together to make sure all three legs of the stool are firmly in place? 

Mental wellbeing
“A culture that supports good work-life balance can reduce absence caused by poor mental health”

Aviva’s wellbeing team works closely with reward and benefits, internal comms, property and facilities and diversity and inclusion teams. The latter is important to embrace all aspects of wellbeing, but particularly so in terms of promoting good mental health. Wellbeing benefits and initiatives won’t work for employees who don’t feel included, or don’t feel that they can be themselves while they’re at work.

A culture supporting a good work-life balance is essential to encourage take-up of the benefits on offer. Manageable amounts of stress generate good performance… but too much can cause a high level of absence due to poor mental health. 

Managers need to lead the way here – not just by making their expectations clear, but also by setting the right example, so employees don’t get the impression that maintaining poor work-life balance is the only way to further their careers. A culture of presenteeism – soldier on however bad you feel – can create more mental health issues further down the line.

Physical wellbeing
“Are employees simply too tired to take up benefits which improve their wellbeing?”

Similar principles hold true when we’re considering physical wellbeing. Let’s say that a business offers discounted gym membership. This is a benefit which is usually taken up during out-of-work hours, so the employer suffers little immediate impact to productivity, while enjoying the benefits of a healthier workforce. But if the culture of the business means employees don’t have enough time in the evenings – or are simply too tired to bother going to the gym – then it becomes a benefit that won’t be worth even a minimal investment. 

Financial wellbeing 
“Talking about personal finance is the last great taboo… and it’s damaging to wellbeing”

Recent national campaigns have made it clear that the culture of some businesses works against open discussion of mental wellbeing. We’ve stared to make progress on this, but what about financial wellbeing? Arguably, there’s an even greater taboo to be overcome here. Bizarrely, UCL research suggested that people were seven times more likely to share with a stranger how many sexual partners they have had than to reveal how much they earn!

If employees feel that they can’t talk about their finances they certainly won’t take advantage of wellbeing benefits such as financial education, pensions guidance or loans paid from salary. But the workplace is a natural environment to seek this kind of help. There is less of a barrier to overcome when talking to a line manager or HR colleague who already has details of an employee’s financial position. The workplace provides the bulk – if not all – of their income, so it feels like the right area to look for support.

So, no matter which aspects of wellbeing we’re seeking to improve, prioritising one factor – be it culture, benefits or mindset – over the others isn’t an option. We need all three together, otherwise we’ll find ourselves wobbling around… or falling flat to the floor.

The author is Debbie Bullock, UK Wellbeing Lead at Aviva.

This article is provided by Aviva. 


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