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Standard operating procedure for addressing thorny societal problems appears to be to work opportunistically. If there is a commercial or political will to solve a specific problem, it gets tackled – but often in isolation from other issues. This helter-skelter approach can leave us with such fragmentation in the ultimate design that we create more inefficiencies, more unintended consequences, and more costs to policymakers, employers, individuals and society as a whole.
Therein lies the rub. Unless a new set of incentives and priorities embedded in an integrated planning framework drives a new economic and societal vision of what we call well-being, the way we try to solve societal problems will be just that – opportunistic.
We started this edition of Benefits Barometer by pointing out that for the concept of a well-being economy to permeate a society, we need to first understand what a well-being economy is and how to measure it. More importantly, we need to understand the barriers to creating a well-being economy and how a country such as ours could address them.
In this section, we examine how we need to start using a very different lens through which to see this expansive potential.
At some level, employers have come to accept that it is in their interest to promote physical, financial and emotional well-being among their employees. The logic is fairly straightforward: keep employees functional and engaged, and this should reduce the kind of payroll wastage caused by employee absenteeism, presenteeism, stress and disengagement. There are any number of programmes attempting to provide integrated solutions in this space. But if we want to see real impact for broader South Africa, we need to take this well-being discussion much further.
We start by discussing just how effective these employee well-being programmes are. The conclusion is: not as much as they should (or could) be. What could we do to draw greater insights from them and make them far more effective?
Providing an employee with resources to manage their debt, health or vitality is only part of the equation. How the employer marries these opportunities with equal opportunities and incentives for advancement, skills development and wealth creation is just as important. Creating a working environment that is responsive to employees’ emotional, social and physical needs suggests that employers need to give equal attention to how the corporate culture supports transformation, a broader social purpose and an opportunity to be heard and respected, no matter how different our perspective.
Each of these layers of employer and employee interaction weaves together to create that important meeting point: the well-being corporation. A more integrated picture could address the need for South African companies to be globally competitive while at the same time providing a much-needed stimulus to the social transformations so vital to the country’s economic regeneration.
Consider the multitude of historical issues South Africa continues to battle with in the areas of social cohesion, equality, transformation, diversity and inclusion, skills development and enterprise development – and, lately, meeting the economic challenges presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (see Benefits Barometer 2017: 'Changing world of work'). As a meeting point and melting pot of the complex tapestry of the South African social fabric, the workplace is the ideal setting for examining these issues and test-driving potential solutions.
This point has not been lost on policymakers. Bit by bit, they have tried, through a battery of policies, to use both carrots and sticks to nudge, cajole, even steamroller employers into addressing many of these societal barriers in the workplace.
But where has this gotten us? We may be more aware now than ever before that these are important issues. But on balance, the limited success of well-meaning programmes in addressing these issues has relegated many of them to backburner ‘grudge’ status in the strategic planning of many corporations.
As we suggested at the start, perhaps that failing is due to the fragmented way these problems have been approached. What we propose is a model for the well-being corporation (the employer) for South Africa.
We present this model in multiple layers, each one building on the next to create the foundation so essential for employee support. As we move towards higher levels in our model, the focus starts to shift to the role of the employer as a catalyst for change by connecting the workplace with the broader demands of a well-being economy.
This model is a significant departure from the traditional workplace regime. It requires gradual introduction, but not so modest that it becomes a simple case of aggregating all the elements with which employers need to grapple in corporate HR departments. By building from employee needs upwards, layer by layer, we are creating the scaffolding for the employer to solve for employee well-being, company efficiency and productivity challenges, and address policy relating to corporate responsibilities to both employees and the broader economy.
Virtually all economic activity in the contemporary world is carried out not by individuals but by organisations that require a high degree of social cooperation: social capital and trust are fundamental to their success.
Consider how the story unfolds:
Layer 1 introduces the idea that productivity in the workplace begins at an almost microscopic level: how conducive the work environment is to helping employees meet their most basic human needs. These include:
The aim is to help employers create pre-emptive solutions to these issues before they become productivity sappers.
A nation can be maintained only if, between the State and the individual, there is interposed a whole series of secondary groups to attract them strongly in their sphere of action and drag them, into the torrent of social life… Occupational groups are suited to fill this role, and this is their destiny. (Emile Durkheim)1
Layer 2 refers to programmes employers put in place to address their employees’ general well-being. These include:
Layer 3 begins to get to the very heart of a company’s culture, role and identity in society. To what extent does the employer commit to such broader societal demands as:
Layer 4 starts to forge connecting links between the workplace and our broader societal commitments, where policymakers have already started introducing either incentives or penalties to encourage our participation. These include:
BEE scorecard: black economic empowerment SETA: Skills Education Training Authority
Layer 5 is where the whole aggregated picture is integrated into a company’s short-term and long-term strategic plan. Leadership is the pivotal point for success. Through effective leadership, the corporate entity will facilitate and achieve much-needed buy-in from shareholders, stakeholders and policymakers.
By framing our challenge for the well-being corporation in this way, we believe we can create a roadmap for achieving the following:
This is our well-being vision for the future.
As we cover elements of each of these layers in the sections that follow, we hope to place a spotlight on areas where either we haven’t fleshed out the story far enough or where we simply haven’t gained traction. We also look at what we’ve possibly been doing wrong and what we could most definitely be doing better.
We conclude the next article with a case study on skills development that shows the commercial benefits of getting these linkages right.
1 Durkheim, E. 1997. The Division of Labor in Society, The Free Press, New York (book).
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