Workplace wellbeing: How healthier employees boost performance

Just as in sports training, businesses are now recognising the importance of helping staff to working smarter, not harder, to get better performance results.

“Decades of research into how to get people to a peak performance state [have shown] that you need a balance between stress and recovery,” says performance psychologist Dr Sean Richardson, High Performance Academy executive program director. “Ignoring health and wellbeing and just putting your head down and working hard may produce a result in the short term, but it’s not a sustainable process.”

The Medibank Health Check report showed healthy employees are nearly three times more productive than unhealthy employees, and that 97 per cent of Australia's top-performing companies have implemented employee health and wellbeing initiatives. “A healthier, happier workforce directly influences business performance though improved productivity, reduction of sick leave and assisting with employee attraction and retention,” says Kylie Bishop, Medibank executive general manager of people and culture.

So how should businesses adapt to promote health and wellbeing in their teams?

The long-term view

While changing workplace cultures to prioritise wellbeing can be costly and time consuming at first, Professor Greg Bamber, from the Monash Business School, says research consistently shows that organisations soon reap the rewards. “Healthier and happier employees are likelier to give better customer service, which helps encourage customers to become repeat customers,” he says.

Healthy, happy employees are also more likely to remain in their jobs, which reduces recruitment costs for employers. “The average cost of unnecessary turnover is 150 per cent of a salary and that’s just hard cost – never mind lost sales or client relationships or whatever might go along with that,” Dr Richardson points out.

Medibank is one Australian organisation that credits its move to activity-based working in its space-age Medibank Place building with improved employee performance. “We believe it is important that we create a healthy work environment for our people that promotes movement, freedom of choice, flexibility, rejuvenation, creativity, interaction and engagement in order to better their overall mental and physical health and improve productivity,” Bishop says.

After relocating to an office that boasts outdoor terraces, a lounge with a fireplace, games and quiet areas in October 2014, Bishop says 66 per cent of employees surveyed said they were more productive, 79 per cent said they were more collaborative with others and 70 per cent said they felt healthier. “Overall, we have also seen a reduction in absenteeism since we moved into Medibank Place,” Bishop says.

Another great example is Southwest Airlines in the US who are the only US airline not to have gone bankrupt. “It has a culture of fostering healthier, happier members of its workforce,” explains Professor Bamber, who co-wrote Up in the Air: How Airlines Can Improve Performance by Engaging Their Employees.

“Their mantra is, ‘We treat our employees well, they treat our customers well’. It's been growing every year and had hardly any industrial disputation compared to most of its American airline competitors.”

Consistency is key

Employee wellbeing efforts don't necessarily need to include a Google-worthy office slide, free food and sleeping pods. Dr Richardson says it’s more important for businesses to match programs to their culture and individual desires. “My experience is that it needs to be an individualised approach,” he says. "Some people might benefit from doing yoga in the middle of the day while others find they just want to listen to music for 10 minutes between sales calls.”

Simply asking employees what would make them happier is an obvious starting point. “One of the key ingredients is giving members of the workforce a voice about what is important to them,” Professor Bamber says.

One of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to improve employee health is to offer regular brain breaks throughout the day. “Try to work snippets of recovery into transition points in the day, such as between intense work pieces or while making the transition from work to home,” Dr Richardson suggests. “It might seem counter-intuitive, but we might actually need to give employees more opportunity to bounce back, to recover, to feel better physically and mentally.”

And if there's one thing we can learn from organisations doing wellbeing right, it's that it has to be modelled from the top down. “If leaders and managers want to see it happen, they’ve got to be role models for a balanced approach,” Dr Richardson says. “You have to engage people and convince them.”

Words by Kimberly Gillan

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.

For more on the work of Dr Sean Richardson, visit