Peter Simpson
Peter Simpson © Tim George

Happy, healthy and engaged employees are more productive and less likely to leave, or be off sick. So far, so obvious, but at Anglian Water there is a bigger prize for championing employee wellbeing. Understandably for a company with public health at its core, health and safety is where our wellbeing journey began. In 2005, private medical cover was costing us £2m per year, and was forecast to rise by 10 per cent every year. We could see a clear line to a £4m bill, with sickness levels averaging 10 days per employee per year. We had a choice of reducing the cost of the medical cover by changing benefits, or thinking differently to keep people well and at work.

The evidence for a focus on wellbeing was compelling. Sickness absence due to mental ill health costs the UK economy more than £8bn per year, according to the Centre for Mental Health charity, while the cost of reduced productivity from those suffering from mental ill health who turn up to work is a further £15bn every year. The question was not, “Why should we take a holistic approach to wellbeing?” but rather, “Why wouldn’t we?” We set a clear ambition, now enshrined in our company charter. It has moved us from, “Great, we haven’t hurt anybody today”, to, “Excellent. You’re happier and healthier than you were”.

Once committed to wellbeing, we had to define it in a way that resonated in the boardroom. We turned to the Workwell Model from Business in the Community, the UK-based charity and business lobbying group. The model allies corporate experience with academic best practice. We integrated it into our business plan to identify gaps and to signpost our intention to give equal consideration to mental and physical health. The model put employee wellbeing at centre stage in boardroom discussions. It helped improve employer brand and customer engagement. It reduced staff absence and raised productivity. We were soon able to demonstrate the benefit consistently outstripped investment — for every £1 we spent, we got £8 of benefit back.

The focus on wellbeing has also helped to improve safety standards across our workforce. Last year, direct employees, and those employed by contractors, partners and other affiliated businesses, worked 1.24m hours and recorded zero accidents — a first for Anglian Water. In 2009, for example, the company recorded an accident frequency rate of 0.37 per 100,000 hours worked.

Our managers are leading this. Three years ago we partnered with performance consultants Lane 4 to transform the way we lead our people. Run by Adrian Moorhouse, the former Olympic swimmer, our programme helps leaders to try to create a culture of genuine care and concern. It focuses on supporting others, and being seen to be doing so, thereby creating what we call the “shadow of the leader”.

It has been a journey — and one we are still on. By fundamentally changing our approach, we have halved spending on private medical care. Sickness absence rates have reduced to just four days per employee from 5.5 days lost on average in 2012. Our goals of improving service and productivity have been met. This has made it easier to recruit good people and has attracted praise from independent sources too. Anglian Water was recently named Responsible Business of the Year 2017 by Business in the Community.

We’re now in a more mature position when it comes to wellbeing. We focus on the “whole person” — we still spend on safety, but not exclusively. We have provided nutritional advice from John Briffa, the well-known health writer. Thousands of staff have attended wellbeing roadshows on ending the stigma around mental health as well as on administering CPR in the workplace. I personally teamed up with Mind, the mental health charity, pledging to support its Time to Talk campaign. And we have partnered with Neyber, the fintech platform, to offer financial advice and loans through employer partnerships. Feedback from colleagues has been fantastic.

One of the most important tools we have developed allows us to quantify the bottom-line impact of wellbeing initiatives. Working with Philip Gibbs at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceuticals company, we have developed a “wellbeing calculator”. This tracks the shift in spending from reactive to proactive. The tool shows that over the past four years we have reduced reactive costs by eight times the amount we spent on proactive, preventative measures.

Our goal is to implement ways of working that improve the whole life of our employees. This is a far more ambitious vision than simply keeping them safe at work. I really believe work can have a positive effect on colleagues that will repay the business many times over.

As the benefits become clearer and easier to quantify, more companies will see the merits in promoting the wellbeing of their workforces. As chair of Business in the Community’s wellbeing task force, I hope to help galvanise small and medium-sized enterprises into action, so that they too can reap the benefits of having healthier and happier employees.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article