Are you too focused on ROI and not enough on your wellbeing impact? IOSH President & Mercedes Executive Stuart Hughes calls on the industry to step up for society


Stuart Hughes is President and Chair of Council at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), as well as his day-job as Head of Health & Safety at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One.

We spoke to him ahead of his Watercooler appearance, where he’s talking about ‘Aligning HR, reward and wellbeing with the organisation’s commercial strategy’.

Something that became immediately apparent in talking to Hughes is how passionate he is about committing to positive societal change through business; as you’ll see from this Q&A, Hughes is a firm believer of business as a force for good and holds extremely progressive, positive views on the role of wellbeing, health and safety to make a difference.

While many wellbeing professionals are pursuing the Holy Grail of measurement and clear ROI for any spend on wellbeing, Hughes’ questions whether we, as an industry, are indeed too focused on this and making a real difference depends on genuinely caring for people, regardless of the ‘pounds and pence’ you might get back…

What is most important to you when it comes to workplace wellbeing? What would you like to see the industry talking about more?

I’d like to see recognition of the need for a holistic approach to wellbeing – which considers all aspects of an individual’s health from physical, to mental, to recovery rates after intense work – and for this topic to be more a part of industry discussions.

In my opinion, there’s sometimes an over-focus on ‘what is the return on investment for the delivery of our health and wellbeing programme’? Actually, sometimes I think the question would be better framed as ‘what is the impact for the workforce, and the sustainability of the organisation?’, rather than ‘do we get our pounds and pence back?’

That’s really interesting as we hear a lot about employers chasing better measures of programmes…. Tell me more….

Some people might say my questions might be naive for businesses to address – but, actually, if you want to be the employer of choice in future then how you care for people under your charge, and making that better than what another employer does, is going to make you stand out. 

One of the things, for example, I often think about is this question: 

how can we transfer knowledge, skills and capability in people’s wellbeing long beyond their time working for my organisation?

Tell me more about why that’s so important to you…

It’s about helping people give their best within the work environment, but also being useful members of society and their community and being able to give their full to friends, family, loved ones or whatever is important to them. Our vision is for people to look back, 40 years on, at their time working for us and say ‘there’s things I did there that positivley impacted my quality of life as I got older’.

Personally, I think this is an obligation that organisations should embrace.

So, are you saying their wellbeing is more of a moral obligation than a commercial one?

It’s about performance, ultimately. 

In a high performance organisation, like ours,  you want people to thrive, but if you only look at that in the narrow lens of the world of work, you’re missing a lot of other inputs that make a difference and can help people have a greater quality of life.

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The more things that people are doing outside of their work environment, that help pique their curiosity, or keep them perhaps in a better mental state of positivity and enjoyment, the better. It’s the longterm view and the cumulative impact of all the choices a person makes over days, weeks and months. 

As employers, it’s our job to give them the information and tools so that they can, on balance, make good decisions and good choices. Ultimately, if employees are on that kind of track for a healthier and happier lifestyle I think that creates a more productive, engaged work environment.

You are talking about an employer making a positive mark on an employee’s life long term. Do you feel that desire is something that is common in workplaces from your experience?

I think it’s fairly unusual, but that holistic approach is starting to become talked about more broadly. And, with my IOSH hat on I’d say that 20 years ago wellbeing might not necessarily have been within the sphere of occupational safety and health, and now it is. We understand people that are in better physical and mental health will generally make better decisions at work, that should reduce the potential for exposure to harm and that these things are interconnected.

What other issues are you particularly banging the drum for in terms of your presidency of IOSH?

Ah, lots! We’ve just released a ‘Towards a safe and healthy future of work’ report focusing on how we make use of the opportunities and challenges the future presents in terms of changes in technology, and where people work, and what that means for the profession.

I have three main focus areas: recognising the value within our volunteer network through a campaign called ‘By the members, for the members.; challenging the profession to enhance the research agenda to turn academia into useful instruments of practice; and, finally to promote Occupational Safety and Health and a fundamental human right.

Then there’s the ‘No time to lose’ campaign which is about making sure people are not exposed to harmful substances. And then we’re starting to see a number of bodies come together to look at how we effectively deal with the challenges of mental health, and that workplaces attend to the elements that they can control to reduce the burden of stress and burnout on their employees. 

Also, another big issue is how do you ensure that you communicate well for your neurodivergent employees.

Any areas you’d like to see companies step up?

Yes – health has always been what I call an ‘ugly sister’ of safety which hasn’t had as much time and attention. I think this is because, in part, because some ‘harms’ have a long latency period, so a workplace might be the cause of a chronic illness but it won’t develop for many years. I’d love to see organisations step up and challenge themselves to commit to making sure things they’ve done haven’t caused anyone harm, even when those people are outside of their employment now. But that’s a big commitment.

What are you going to be talking about at The Watercooler?

The interplay of HR and wellbeing, and how you get return on investment. I think it’ll be interesting as we’ll have different views.

In terms of return on investment, I understand the business need to demonstrate that you get value out of the investment that you make. But I think there’s perhaps a different way to view those outcomes. I think it’s more about demonstrating care for individuals and the long term impact of what you have in place. 

Yes, we’ve got to look at improvements in our organisations. But, perhaps more importantly, we should be looking at the secondary impacts to society of meaningful and well targeted wellbeing programmes. For instance, they could have an significant impact in terms of reducing the needs on services like the NHS. That’s powerful.

What about the ISO 45003 – what do you think of this framework?

If you don’t know where to start it’s probably a good place to get some insight into what is potentially impactful and effective. But I’m not inclined to apply a blanket framework to all organisations because they’re individually all very different so it’s necessary to work out which bits of it really work for you. 

Personally, I think we should be looking at the needs of the organisation and people within it, and tailoring to those, rather than taking a blanket standard and applying it.

And you believe, as well as adhering to rules and regulations, Health and Safety professionals need to be creative – is that right?

Yes! I think it’s really important. Rules and regulations are fairly black and white but there’s a lot of grey in there and the grey is where you can be creative in looking for alternate ways to do things. For example, in the way we communicate and engage with people and how we tell stories that are meaningful, rather than just quote statistics. That’s the way to generate change; storytelling is something I’m passionate about.

I think alot of people who go into a career in health and safety do it because they want to make a difference. Then they find themselves curtailed by systems, frameworks, documentations…. I’d like to see us be a bit more innovative and creative and imaginative in terms of how we actually influence people and work with organisations to, ultimately, get safer and healthier outcomes.

Clearly you have a very strong social conscience, which is great to hear. What message would you like to get out to your fellow professionals in this space?

Anybody that’s working within an organisation that has a human focus should really consider the impact of what they do and the potential to make societal change through the world of work. 

We spend more time at work than potentially anywhere else and that means that we can have a significant impact through the provisions that we put in in place for people. We need to look more at the interconnectedness of work and society.

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