Every week, employees at Fujitsu block out an hour in their calendars for a non-work activity of their choice. They reserve periods for undisturbed “protected focus time” and squeeze their remaining essential online meetings into 25 and 45 minute periods to ensure they have breaks between calls.

“These were really simple things that got so much positive feedback,” says Kelly Metcalf, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing for the Japanese technology company’s north-western Europe division. “One of the big complaints among our remote workers was virtual meeting fatigue. They were absolutely sick of looking at screens all day.”

The measures are among a number that the business — and other employers globally — are exploring as they adjust to a post-pandemic world characterised by more flexible, hybrid and remote working, with a greater focus on employee wellbeing integrated into their operations.

Wellbeing in the workplace has often been an incidental add-on, with individual interventions on encouraging greater physical activity and healthy eating, such as the provision of fruit in the canteen, smoking cessation sessions or subsidised gym membership.

Yet there is growing discussion of the need for approaches that extend more broadly to address mental wellbeing, and go deeper to tackle underlying structural causes of workplace stress rooted in how organisations are managed.

One reason is research on the links between physical and mental health and productivity. Exercise can improve mental wellbeing, for example, while physical symptoms such as backache may be proxies for underlying mental health concerns.

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Christian van Stolk, executive vice-president at independent research institute Rand Europe, points to a number of studies, including the Britain’s healthiest workplace awards backed by the Financial Times, showing that reduced employee physical and mental health is associated with lower performance, measured by factors including absenteeism as well as “presenteeism”, where staff come to work but underperform.

“There is a particularly strong link between wellbeing and the quantity and quality of sleep”, he says. He also points to the growing concerns over additional financial stresses against a backdrop of rising living costs and low paid employees.

Covid-19 has sparked a shake-up in how employers operate and respond to employee health concerns. Metcalf argues that the pandemic was a catalyst at Fujitsu to switching focus to a more holistic approach: “There was no option but to embrace employee wellbeing. We could not have sustained productivity and continued to deliver otherwise.”

She also points to broader factors pushing employers to engage on the issues: the current buoyant labour market in many countries means executives need to find new ways to make the workplace attractive to recruit and retain younger staff.

Professor Carol Black, a doctor and UK government adviser on work and health, cites parallel concerns about the “great resignation” of older, more experienced staff who are leaving, spurring fresh reflection on how to keep them. “Health and wellbeing have gone really up the agenda of government and industry,” she says.

A man speaks to colleagues in a digital meeting. Many remote workers have complained about virtual meeting fatigue
Many remote workers have complained about virtual meeting fatigue © Getty

But if there is enhanced demand for programmes to support employee wellness, and no shortage of consultants and services to respond, the evidence on what works is much thinner. “There is so much stuff out there that is not high quality, with this or that app offering wellbeing,” she says.

Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Manchester university, says rigorous studies are rare. It can be difficult to define, implement and measure standardised interventions, with academics and businesses alike reluctant to invest the time and costs required. “Organisational researchers feel they can’t get work on them published and employers don’t want to waste time doing them,” he says.

His own research, backed by discussions with the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, a network of senior UK executives that he oversees, points to the need to tackle the underlying structural reasons for employee stress, frequently rooted in poor management practices.

He argues that reduced workplace stress and improved productivity is linked to factors including autonomy, a sense of purpose among staff and empathetic management.

“It’s all about the line manager — from the shop floor to the top floor,” he says. “They need to have interpersonal, social and empathetic skills. But we promote them today based on technical expertise. In the world we are going to, there has to be parity of people skills and technical skills for managers.”

Kevin Daniels, an adviser to the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, points to evidence suggesting the best employers engage senior managers with regular training, flexible working practices and frequent staff consultation on everything from office layout to the design of jobs. To remain effective, any specific interventions will evolve over time in response to feedback.

David Roomes, chief medical officer at UK engineering group Rolls-Royce, argues that successful programmes require decentralised discussion and employee involvement. “There are a tonne of vendors out there selling all sorts of interventions from foot massages to beanbags and table football. They look nice in a brochure and possibly make people feel good, but we wanted to make sure we had an evidence base.”

Since 2015, he has overseen a “live well” programme that requires every company site around the world to run a wellbeing committee. Teams are required to report on what they do and reach a minimum standard, but the specific approaches they adopt are delegated to them. While causality is hard to prove, he says that those divisions which perform best around wellbeing also have fewer safety concerns and higher staff engagement.

Rolls-Royce combines its decentralised approach with management training, outreach by ambassadors and periodic seminars with senior leaders including the chief executive setting an example from the top. “If you have bosses with 24/7 expectations of work, it permeates. If you are seen to be successful by displaying certain invincible traits, then that’s what people model,” he says.

“We are busting the myth that productivity only comes from driving people harder. We want to look at the whole person and be much more thoughtful about how you lead and manage to ultimately give you better results,” Roomes adds. “We spend tens of millions of pounds a year on plant and asset, and everybody says our people are our assets but our investment by comparison is modest.”

This article has been amended since publication to correct Kevin Daniels’ position

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