Wellbeing at work might conjure up images of yoga classes and fruit bowls but it is more than just offering health perks. The CIPD identifies seven domains of wellbeing: health, good work, values/principles, collective/social, personal growth, financial wellbeing and good lifestyle choices. An effective wellbeing strategy that benefits both employer and employee should consider these perspectives in context. There is no one-size-fits all approach.

In this article, we share two case studies of how people professionals in Ireland and the UK have used technology to mobilise initiatives that address several domains of wellbeing. We then provide a framework with examples to help you identify opportunities where technology can enhance your initiatives.

A programme for employees to recharge informed by analytics

Around June 2020, three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, US-owned Cloudera noticed that its employees were not taking annual leave. ‘Traditionally, a lot of people will associate holidays or time off with travelling out of the country. Not being able to travel was a blocker initially,’ said Cloudera’s EMEA HR Operations Manager Shane Prendergast, who is based in Ireland.

Cloudera took action in proposing a plan that would encourage all employees to take time off to recharge on specific days while employees were required to work from home. ‘Typically, when you come back from vacation, you spend nearly a day catching up on emails. If we collectively unplug, when we come back to work together, then it’s not as burdensome to catch up on what you need to do,’ Prendergast said. 

At the same time, Prendergast took the lead to make sure that the plan was legally compliant globally. ‘In the US, our colleagues have unlimited paid time off, but they don’t have statutory leave entitlements to use like we do in the international regions… We wanted to make sure that we weren’t giving people [in the international regions] a lot of extra days and pushing all the carry-over leave down the line. We needed to build the programme with this in mind.’ 

Prendergast analysed annual leave usage patterns by country and business area from the absence management system. He examined employment contracts and annual leave rules for the different countries. He then refined the plans with the legal and HR leadership teams. 

The result was ‘Unplug’, a series of paid company days off on top of existing annual leave entitlements. No checking emails or attending meetings – in fact, invitations to meet on an Unplug day would be declined automatically. 

Unplug days are scheduled every few weeks and attached to weekends, so that employees regularly enjoyed long weekends lasting three to five days. Those who need to work on those days because of urgent business needs can arrange alternative days at their managers’ discretion. Cloudera awarded 15 Unplug days in 2020 and 23 in 2021. 

Employees outside the US were encouraged to take five days’ annual leave on specific days each year in 2020 and 2021 to help them use up their statutory leave entitlements. Because the rules around annual leave differ greatly between countries, it was more practical to encourage rather than mandate that employees take leave. Most employees saw the value of ‘Unplugging’ together, so were happy to take annual leave on the suggested dates, Prendergast said. 

The timing of Unplug days was designed to nudge employees to use their annual leave and Prendergast can see from the leave usage analytics that it’s working. ‘Last week we had a three-day Unplug. So, what we’ve seen is that people tend to take the Monday and Tuesday from their annual leave as well [so they have a whole week off work].’

Unplug has also been successful from an employer branding perspective and even attracted international media coverage. Employees, including the senior leadership team, share what they’ve been up to on Cloudera’s intranet and newsletter, and publicly on social media. Some global locations have used the Unplug days to organise virtual group charity activities and exercise challenges. Participation was optional because Cloudera wanted employees to choose how they ‘Unplugged’. Prendergast said, ‘We have a large population that was onboarded remotely. By doing these virtual activities around Unplug days, we’ve been able to promote our culture to our employees and external world. The benefits have been massive in many ways.’ In a recent Cloudera employee engagement survey, 95% of respondents stated that Unplug days have had a positive impact on their wellbeing.

A digital community for employees dispersed in time and place 

Lincolnshire Co-op employs around 3,000 people across 220 plus outlets in the UK, including at convenience stores, pharmacies, post offices and funeral homes. Most of its employees work shifts. Having multi-way conversations and building relationships across the organisation was slow and expensive. 

This changed in April 2019 when Lincolnshire Co-op launched a social intranet mobile app where employees can asynchronously communicate with each other in a shared digital space. The app was also accessible through a web browser. ‘It’s a way of getting messages out to people quickly and take on board their thoughts,’ said Digital Engagement Manager Fay Bocock. It also flattened communication hierarchies, she said, citing the example of an employee who received a response to their question from a senior leader within half an hour.

The timing was right for Lincolnshire Co-op. Many of its employees already owned smartphones and used social media outside work. As broadband connectivity improved in many rural areas during the pandemic, so did the number of employees who could use the app. 

Employees can post messages in the ‘All Colleagues’ or their business area’s group channels. Employees in the food business enjoyed sharing photos of their displays while those in pharmacy took pride in sharing customer feedback. But it wasn’t just about work. One of the most popular posts in 2020–21 was the virtual Christmas party pack.

There are lots of resources on mental and physical health and wellbeing on the app, which the People team regularly updates and links with external campaigns. On World Suicide Prevention Day, for example, an employee asked if Lincolnshire Co-op could support a mental health charity because, sadly, one of their children had taken their life the day before, Engagement Adviser Rachel Ashmore said.

This led to Head of HR Heather Lee and the Head of Marketing discussing the business supporting a suicide and bereavement charity in the future. ‘That’s come directly from that colleague two-way communication influencing future business policy,’ Lee said. Bocock added, ‘This is content that potentially our colleagues wouldn’t have access to had it not been for our colleague app. Or they wouldn’t be able to explore it freely at home if it was only accessible on a work PC.’

The digital community has grown steadily since its launch two-and-a-half years ago, reaching a peak of 16,888 messages in 2020–21. Of the four-fifths of employees who have downloaded the app, 85% are active users. Impressive, considering how dispersed Lincolnshire Co-op’s employees are in time and place.

To drive this level of engagement, the People team took several approaches such as:

  • Building excitement: Using teasers like ‘It’s coming’ and running a prize draw for those who downloaded the app within a limited period. Post-launch, it continued promoting the app through QR code posters and quizzes where answers need to be submitted through the app.
  • Planning the content calendar and inviting people to share interesting content regularly: The team trained around 30 colleagues across the organisation to administer content and occasionally contacts individual employees for stories, so that it’s not just the People team posting content.
  • Integrating the app with electronic payslips to simplify access for employees and save paper for the organisation: Existing employees can choose whether to switch but for new starter contracts e-payslips come as standard. 
  • Learning from the analytics what content to post and when.
  • Push notifications to prompt employees to look at certain content.

This is complemented with ongoing efforts to help employees learn how to join the digital community through the app or web browser. After launching, the People team sent a colleague with mobile wi-fi to help employees at different sites download the app and show them how to use it. Where usage was low, the team sent a colleague to run another session, found someone onsite who could help, or supported over the phone. When new employees join, the People team ensures that they can access the digital community and payslips on their smartphones.

Identifying opportunities to leverage technology

The two case studies show how people professionals have made the most of technology available inside and outside organisations to design and embed wellbeing initiatives that benefit their organisation and people. Too much technology can be a stressor but technology can also be used to limit its use as Cloudera has done. As noted above, it implemented email rules to automatically decline meetings on Unplug days and used leave usage analytics to help decide when to have the Unplug days. Instituting leave across the organisation at the same time discourages ‘leaveism’ – working while on leave – a problem as widespread as ‘presenteeism’ according to the CIPD Health and wellbeing at work survey 2021.

Technology can make people feel isolated but it can also be used to build social cohesion – an important domain of wellbeing – as Lincolnshire Co-op has done. And the same technology is used to make a wide range of wellbeing support more accessible to employees.

One way to identify opportunities to leverage technology in your wellbeing initiatives is to think about the ‘endgame’ of key technology enablers. Kane et al in their book Transformation Myth identified three: 

Endgame Technology enablers
Abundance Cloud technology, mobile broadband, employee-owned smartphones
Omniscience Data and analytics
Simplicity User-friendly apps and online services that simplify access

Abundance: Can the wellbeing support be accessed on any device? Like Lincolnshire Co-op, The City of Edinburgh Council took advantage of widespread smartphone and laptop ownership to mobilise its wellbeing initiatives. This along with consent to use employees’ personal email addresses if they didn’t have work email addresses, enabled the council to engage with employees through virtual wellbeing roadshows hosted on its existing collaboration platform.

Omniscience: What data sources are relevant for your wellbeing initiatives? Being mindful of legal obligations and your organisation's culture, consider new and existing data sources within and outside the people function. Experian’s wellbeing app uses email traffic data to predict burnout, while Domino Printing’s operators wear a device at least once a year to check that they’re lifting boxes correctly and not injuring their backs. More data or complex analytics is not necessarily better. What’s important is that the data and analytics are valid for the intended purposes. Cloudera and Lincolnshire Co-op used built-in analytics that came with their systems.

Simplicity: How easy is it for employees to access the wellbeing support they need and for your organisation to maintain it? There are many providers offering different types of support that organisations, large or small, can subscribe to. Lincolnshire Co-op and VIVID are examples of organisations that subscribe to wellbeing apps but for them, it’s part of a wider wellbeing strategy that also includes inviting employees to share their personal stories.

See our partner Personio’s articles on how you can help employees find better work–life balance and the five metrics that help track employee wellbeing.

To find out how different employers and employees rated employer support for wellbeing and work–life balance during the pandemic, see Personio’s 2021 HR Study.

Our digital transformation series continues with insights on making reward more accessible and performance management fairer.

The full series

Digital transformation: Practical insights from the
people profession

Our article series showcases the role of people professionals and their experiences in helping their organisations navigate and evolve through digital change

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About the author

Hayfa Mohdzaini, Senior Research Adviser | Interim Head of Research

Hayfa joined us in 2020. Hayfa has degrees in computer science and human resources from University of York and University of Warwick respectively.

She started her career in the private sector working in IT and then HR and has been writing for the HR community since 2012. Previously she worked for another membership organisation (UCEA) where she expanded the range of pay and workforce benchmarking data available to the higher education HR community. 

She is interested in how the people profession can contribute to good work through technology and has written several publications on our behalf, as well as judging our people management awards, speaking at conferences and exhibitions and providing commentary to the media on the subjects of people and technology.

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