Dame Carol Black calls on the wellbeing industry to embrace people analytics

Professor Dame Carol Black photographed for the RSA, commissioned by Wardour

Dame Carol Black is a leading thinker in the wellbeing arena, having officially advised the government on the link between health and work from 2006 and 2016, and continues to be a passionate advocate of prioritising wellbeing at work. As such, she’s seen health trends and fads come and go and can be relied on for a reliable view of what’s important when it comes to improving the nation’s wellbeing, chairing, too, Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey. We asked her opinion on the current buzz around people analytics…

How justified do you think the current hype around people analytics in the wellbeing industry is?

Data about your workforce is essential. You wouldn’t design your financial strategy without data, would you?

Why have we been so slow to the data party in the wellbeing industry?

Because everybody is looking for this ‘silver bullet’; the one thing that you just have to do, then all will be well and you can tick the box. There’s been an inability to understand that an organisational culture that is people-centred is the first thing to get right, before you think about anything else.

So, it’s answering questions like: have you got appropriate leadership? Board engagement? Managerial capability? These are the bedrocks of wellbeing and if you haven’t got those, then interventions will not be successful over the long haul.

What kind of data do you think is most valuable for wellbeing professionals to collect?

You need to collect data that shows the demographics of your employees and segment them as required.   You need to really know your cohorts.   And I’m not just talking about absence data. I’m talking about understanding  their health status and level of wellbeing: what does your younger worker profile look like? What worries them? What are their problems? Then, equally, ask these questions about your middle-aged male and female employees, etc.

Once you know your workforce analytics: how many people are anxious, depressed, or are worried about finance, and what level of muscoskeletal problems you have, you can understand where to intervene, so as to do it in a targeted way without wasting resources and money.

Until you know your baseline demographics and what your challenges are, how can you make the right interventions?   You could waste much resource without the proper facts on which to base your choice of interventions

Does anything worry you about what you’ve seen happening in companies implementing wellbeing strategies?

Many companies put in random interventions not based on proper data.  They range from pilates through mindfulness to fresh fruit, and are often not promoted adequately nor advertised well.    Asked what their outcomes are, companies can rarely give facts and figures, such as  ‘X% of our employees utilise this programme, say for anxiety, and on surveying them, we found that their anxiety had decreased by this amount.’     They just do not have the data.

Again, I think that’s because people just keep looking for that silver bullet.  To do wellbeing effectively takes time and energy. It’s so interesting to me that big companies have been reluctant to approach their wellbeing strategies with the same rigour that they approach their financial management. People management is just as important.

One of the other problems is that often the wellbeing professional does not have a seat at a high-enough level.   But we need that person to have presence and weight.   That must be matched to the right structures and culture, which has got to come from the top.

Do you see that changing, the level of seniority and clout of the wellbeing professional?

I think it is changing. The pandemic has made health and wellbeing in all its aspects go up the agenda.

But some people are seeing health and wellbeing going down the agenda post pandemic?

Yes, there was a great surge in the pandemic, and there may appear to be a bit less now, but I still think it’s in a much better place than it was. Now it’s our job to keep it on the agenda.

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