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How HR leaders in Asia are prioritising health and wellbeing

With the perspective that a healthy and engaged workforce often translates into a productive one, progressive employers across the board are finding time and resources to invest in the wellbeing of their staff.

In this exclusive, we speak to HR leaders and consulting experts across the board to unveil a spectrum of ideas on implementing and sustaining a culture of wellbeing beyond a check-box mentality.

Working where and when we like, with the freedom to huddle in dynamic teams when we’re in office, without assigned desks, attendance or working hours being tracked - this is not the stuff of HR’s science fiction movies, but reality in organisations such as leading reinsurance company Swiss Re. Three years ago, the organisation adopted an Own-The-Way-You-Work policy, which in a bold step, was rolled out in one shot globally, as part of a massive cultural shift towards wellbeing.

“In our perspective, it’s about the holistic wellbeing of employees and not sporadic wellness initiatives in isolation. This policy has added a lot of value to the proposition we offer as an employer, giving employees the flexibility to make their own decisions,” Sanjiv Agarwal, Swiss Re’s HR director for Southeast Asia, shares. This wave of wellness was, in fact, accompanied by a number of workplace changes - such as the introduction of standing desks, and custom workspaces such as think tanks and lounges, and the removal of cabins from across the office.

An equally strong proponent of wellness is Hanny Chan, regional director of  compensation and benefits at asset management firm Allianz Global Investors (AllianzGI). Adopting a more regional perspective, AllianzGI started on the wellness journey four years ago where the management wanted to help staff to start thinking about healthy living at the workplace.

“We cascaded all initiatives around a central theme for each year - for example, healthy living and exercise, wellness mind and soul, and this year it is supporting women and the elderly in the workplace,” she says. This approach comes bundled with interventions such as quarterly luncheons, talks on healthy living, small group coaching via the work-life coaching programmes, and expanded, subsidised coverage, albeit voluntary. “Keeping it voluntary allows employees to take the responsibility for their own health priorities - the onus is not just on HR.”

Living and breathing wellness

Bringing a perspective of best practices across the region on what makes a big difference to all of these initiatives, is Dr Amitabh Deka, regional consultant, wellness and benefits advisory, Willis Towers Watson.

“What really helps is that senior managers talk about wellness, in some shape or form, reinforcing that ‘this is the way we live now’. No manager or employee then questions the sincerity of this initiative, and in fact this will help create a snowball effect.” Reiterating this is Swiss Re’s Agarwal, who believes that whether wellness is part of a full-blown cultural change effort or a series of incremental initiatives, the starting point has to be clarity with the management on the chosen path.

“It doesn't matter if we have 10 initiatives or one, what we want is an environment which allows people to feel that their wellbeing is taken care of. Eventually, it is their responsibility; we can only offer them infrastructure and enablers to take care of themselves,” he says, alluding to Hanny’s earlier point on ownership.

Communication across all levels and stakeholders is a critical part of this piece, and at AllianzGI, this has taken the form of blog posts by the CEO, and several focus groups to keep tabs on the employees’ pulse. “Sometimes, we put up a tree in the office and employees are invited to put their feedback on a sticker. These ways are very telling of what employees like and don't like,” Hanny reveals.

Getting the right prescription

Presently, three in five (61%) employers in Singapore view health and productivity issues as a priority for adopting a health and wellbeing strategy, and they plan to increase their focus on this for the next three years, Audrey Tan, head of health and benefits, Singapore, Willis Towers Watson, points out.

She adds: “When clients ask us for help on focusing their efforts, we contextualise our advice around their unique wellness journey. This helps to visualise where things like technology, employee insights, and measurements should be considered.”

Despite this spotlight, there are hurdles that employers may find while pushing for wellbeing, one of them explained by Hanny from AllianzGI: “We always want to stay ahead of the game by putting the employees' interests first. But ultimately, we cannot please everyone. Our challenge really is to find the balance.”

Another significant concern is the lack of an industry benchmark, or what Agarwal calls “gold standard.” He explains: “With a lot of these ideas, we are playing in the dark, trying new things but unsure about their landing and impact.”

Tan’s advice? Don’t use a common yardstick or average to measure all kinds of programmes, for example, the adoption rate for a zumba class may be very different from the adoption rate of flexi-work policies.

Additionally, companies will have their own set of objectives and varying definitions of what success looks like. “We openly share our research on health and wellbeing practices to provide solid country benchmarks.  However, rather than comparing against the industry, I would say the best way is to measure against yourself every couple of years.”

A clean bill of health from stakeholders

No conversation is complete without the talk of ROI, and in the case of wellness, Agarwal’s view is quite clear: “I personally don't believe wellbeing needs to link to ROI. As long as we continue to measure engagement or retention as an outcome of wellbeing, it is the wrong motivation.”

Instead, it is the tripartite union of employers, vendors, and employees that can make wellness sustainable in organisations. For employers, that means looking at it as a hygiene factor, rather than a benefit. The vendors’ responsibility is to provide, credible, relevant ideas that are convenient and built for the long-term. And finally, for employees, it will become sticky once they see the benefit of themselves being healthier and making it a part of their life.

No matter where your organisation is placed amidst this triad, the benefit is clear to see - because after all, wellbeing is for life.

Lead photo (from L-R):

  • Dr Amitabh Deka, regional consultant, wellness and benefits advisory, Willis Towers Watson
  • Hanny Chan, regional director of compensation and benefits, Allianz Global Investors
  • Sanjiv Agarwal, HR director for Southeast Asia, Swiss Re
  • Audrey Tan, head of health and benefits, Singapore, Willis Towers Watson

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