Health and WellbeingEvaluating workplace wellbeing in 2021

Evaluating workplace wellbeing in 2021

Workplace wellbeing is often intangible and tricky to measure, but finding a way to do this in 2021 could be the key to securing buy-in from your organization's leadership. Becky Thoseby, head of workplace wellbeing, Ministry of Justice UK, offers her how-to guide.

30-second summary:

  • Given the lack of measurable evidence, organizations tend to evaluate wellbeing using simple, outdated methods
  • Defining what wellbeing means for your organization is the crucial first step in evaluating it effectively
  • A blanket approach will not suffice – particularly in large organizations
  • Data can be a powerful tool if you use it to focus on the factors that actually drive workplace wellbeing

Though wellbeing in UK business has taken major strides in recent years, the process of measuring and evaluating it is another matter. With wellbeing often being considered an intangible concept, this aspect of the function is still very much in its infancy. As a result, there is simply no body of evidence that we can point to and say “this works, and this doesn’t”.

Based on this, we find ourselves facing a tricky problem. During a time where wellbeing culture is more important than ever before, how can we evaluate our efforts and demonstrate the impact of them to senior leadership?

The key challenges

Considering this dearth of measurable evidence, organizations tend to opt for one (or a combination) of three standard evaluation methods.

Firstly we have the seductive favourites of sickness absence, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and the usage of other support services. Crucially, these methods tell us little about the state of the organization’s wellbeing; just the number of people who utilize the support services, and so on.

It’s also difficult to pin down what drives these numbers. For example, if mental health absence at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) increases, am I claiming that as a victory because people are being more honest about the reasons for their absence, or is it a defeat because mental health in MoJ is getting worse?

Secondly, we have subjective wellbeing measures – questions like “how anxious did you feel yesterday?” and “how would you rate your mental health now?”.  I’m even less fond of these; there are so many factors influencing how someone might answer questions like these, that it’s almost impossible to prove causality.  This is a drum I’ve been banging for some years, and in 2021 it’s more relevant than ever.

Thirdly, there are the outcome-based measures, which I’m slightly less averse to as they at least attempt to make a link between what we do and what we’re looking to achieve. But that said, they are still imperfect – again, it’s very difficult to prove causality.

It’s therefore fair to say that a definitive answer as to how to measure the impact of wellbeing interventions does not currently exist.

But why does this matter? Why not just throw together a bunch of data for our senior team and then they’ll leave me alone to get on with my work? The answer is, because you do not want to be held to account for factors that are beyond your control. Nobody wants to be hauled up in front of their board in the middle of a pandemic being asked why their sickness absence stats are going through the roof.

Fortunately, there is a way around this: to measure the factors that actually drive workplace wellbeing.

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Back to basics

What gets measured gets managed, so it’s key that you understand what you’re trying to achieve with both with your workplace wellbeing programme and your evaluation programme. This is crucial in ensuring the evaluation supports the programme rather than undermining it. So, before you start to think about how you’re going to measure workplace wellbeing, you need to address four key questions.

Firstly, what does wellbeing mean in your organization? It might mean a healthy workforce with low rates of sickness absence. It might mean optimum productivity. It might mean employees are empowered to engage in self-care activities. It might even mean all of these things. The point is, before you decide how you want to measure workplace wellbeing, you must first ensure that you actually know what that means.

Secondly, what is your wellbeing strategy looking to achieve?  If you’re clear about the goals, it’ll be easier to demonstrate improvement over time.

Thirdly, what methods of data collection and analysis do you have at your disposal? This is important in ensuring that you’re being realistic when you make plans about what data you’ll collect and how. For instance, at MoJ we have a whole team of experts in survey design who’ll design the survey for me, run it, and analyse the results.

Finally, what is the audience and how do they want to receive the data? I had an experience at MoJ, collaborating with a former stakeholder who had originally trained as a statistician, and wanted really intricate data in an interactive dashboard format. Frankly, a headache.  Fortunately, I now have a senior team who like to see things visually, with an overview of the main organizational trends and the option to drill down where there are hotspots or areas of concern. Knowing this means that I can collect data which meets this need.


Once you’ve answered these questions, you then have the basis for measuring your interventions.  But how does this work in practice?

To bring this to life for you, I want to tell you about the plans I’m putting in place for a data-informed approach at MoJ. And I choose that word carefully – data-informed rather than data-driven. Our approach to wellbeing at MoJ is inclusion-driven, and we use the data we collect to inform that approach.

A person-centred strategy

At MoJ we take a strictly person-centred approach to wellbeing. In essence, one that recognizes each employee as an individual with their own unique set of needs. We believe this method encourages:

  • Individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing
  • Line managers to support their team members based on a holistic picture of their needs
  • Senior leaders to encourage a culture of wellbeing through their behaviour
  • The organization to create an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive.

What’s more, the interventions are:

  • Inclusion-focused, so that everyone in the organization benefits regardless of their own package of needs
  • Issue-focused, where data tells us there is a particular issue within the organization.

To support this approach, we focus on making improvements in the areas of wellbeing that we as an employer can influence. We do this through using an evidence-based model of wellbeing.

Drivers of workplace wellbeing

At MoJ we use a model created by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, which is an independent, non-profit organization that develops and shares evidence on wellbeing to improve decision making that is used by government, businesses and civil society.

This model arose from research the conducted across UK workplaces to find out what actually drives workplace wellbeing. It found that there are five main drivers: health, security, environment, relationships and purpose.

I’m sure you can see the appeal of measuring factors which the employer (and ultimately you) can actually influence. To accompany this model, the centre also has a full questionnaire to assess wellbeing against the five drivers, and it’s this that we will be using as the basis of our data informed approach, with three quarterly pulse surveys in-between our yearly people survey.

Next steps

Firstly, I’ll be using the questionnaire to put together a regular pulse survey which will assess wellbeing across the organization. I’ll supplement this with intelligence gained from existing focus groups and individual stakeholders. For example, we have groups already in place to focus on issues such as staff engagement and smarter working, so I can ask them some focused questions about what they observe in the business. I also have individual relationships with people such as business partners and D&I leads who regularly feed back to me about issues they see coming up in the business.

Next, I’ll work with our analysts to put together a standardized format for showcasing the data that we can use to present to senior stakeholders each time. It’ll show trends over time while also highlighting which areas of the organization, if any, have particular challenges, and where possible, benchmarking appropriately for each

Once this approach has been in place for some time, I’ll be taking feedback from my audience to see if this approach meets their needs, and if it needs any further refinement.

My top tips for evaluating workplace wellbeing

So, with a lot of ground covered, let’s sum up with my top tips for evaluating workplace wellbeing:

  • Measuring workplace wellbeing is challenging, but this shouldn’t intimidate you. It is absolutely possible if you take the right approach
  • Try and make sure you measure the things you’re actually trying to change, otherwise you can create perverse incentives
  • Try not to measure things which aren’t within your control, otherwise you can end up being held to account for things you can’t do anything about
  • Finally, focus on the factors that actually drive workplace wellbeing and your data can act as a diagnostic tool.

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