While employees’ mental health is currently the top concern for UK CEOs, board-driven wellbeing initiatives are a rarity – that’s according to a new report from the Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA). In its research, the organisation found that 73% of employers cite high-pressure working environments as the primary threat to staff wellbeing.

It also detected a surge in the nation’s uptake of corporate wellbeing programmes, with almost half (45%) of organisations having a defined strategy in place – up from less than a third (30%) in 2016. Another pleasing discovery was that 84% of employers without a wellbeing strategy plan to implement one over either the next 12 months or three years.

However, just 8% of respondents said that their boards take an active role in driving their firms’ wellbeing agendas forward. Meanwhile, 5% indicated that their boards are hardly interested in wellbeing at all.

REBA carried out its research in partnership with employee benefits solutions provider Punter Southall Health & Protection. The firm’s chief commercial officer John Dean said: “While there is a positive increase in companies adopting wellbeing programmes … few strategies are being driven by the board, and this is concerning. For wellbeing programmes to succeed, it is essential they are integrated into the business strategy and prioritised by the board.”

REBA director Debi O’Donovan added: “Ensuring that the mental wellbeing of employees is safeguarded must be a priority and it is encouraging to see that over 80% of respondents highlighted this as an area that they will focus on. However, we would like to see stronger leadership come from boards, because where we see wellbeing led from the top we also see the most impressive results for both employees and their organisations.”

What does this say about the current state of the relationship between boards and the national wellbeing agenda?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We hear so much about how certain types of workplace initiatives, often in the field of wellbeing, must be led from the top. But it leaves me wondering what we are actually expecting from senior-management teams, in terms of the precise lead that they should take. It’s easier to picture in areas such as shared parental leave – although someone who takes on a senior role is less likely to be in their 30s and expecting their first baby.”

Cooper points out: “Leaders can role model good behaviours in the way that they i) talk to staff, ii) hold coaching conversations, iii) give frequent feedback, iv) be as authentic, open and honest as possible and v) allow dissenting voices to be heard. So there are all those different ways of setting positive examples. But other than that, I struggle to see what is expected of them. And is it really necessary? If they have, as a team, signed the organisation up to a wellbeing programme that has a cost attached, how much more commitment is required in order to make that change work?”

She adds: “While the workplace is of course an important area of life, your attitude to health, exercise and nutrition is governed by a far greater range of influences than those that stem from work. Plus, they all fall under the umbrella heading of individual choices. Making these programmes available and making it okay to access their wisdom and insights is one thing – but perhaps when we have a call for more commitment from the top, it would be helpful for us all if what that should look like could be articulated.”

For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute