Date posted: 30/09/2021 10 min read

How do you make a workplace wellbeing program work?

Everyone agrees wellbeing at work is a great idea, so what’s stopping wellbeing policies from being effective?

In Brief

  • Worker wellbeing is seen to support organisational performance.
  • Business leaders, not the HR department, must champion a workplace wellbeing program for it to succeed.
  • Organisations must accept that an effective wellbeing program will take effort, time and resources.

I don’t think many people would disagree that COVID-19 is taking a toll on the mental health of employees. In Australia, where there have been multiple lockdowns across all states, the novelty of living and working at home – and for many, schooling at home – has well and truly worn off.

It’s no surprise that this is affecting our ability to remain motivated and productive at work.

Many employers are doing a great job at being supportive and empathetic to their staff. However, given the pressures already placed on accountants, and the additional demands from clients navigating COVID’s economic fallouts, many chartered accountants may feel stretched.

One unexpected consequence of COVID-19 is that workplace wellbeing has rocketed to the top of organisational to-do lists.

“One unexpected consequence of COVID-19 is that workplace wellbeing has rocketed to the top of organisational to-do lists.”

Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report states that “worker wellbeing is a top priority today, largely because of the belief that it supports organisational performance.”

However, the same report points out that while 80% of organisations agree worker wellbeing is important or very important for their success during the next 12-18 months, only 12% say they are “very ready” to address this issue.

So, what is getting in the way of a structured and prioritised approach to employee wellbeing?

Wellbeing isn’t waffle – it’s science

The first hurdle for some employers is accepting that wellbeing is not ‘woo woo’ but based on proper science. Indeed, researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at California University, Berkeley, study the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of wellbeing. They refer to it as “science-based insights for a meaningful life”.

Many studies over the past decades have provided scientific evidence on the importance of wellbeing in driving engagement, purpose and performance at work.

While I’ll admit to not being great at yoga, as a consumer researcher for 20 years I’m pretty good at research, and I’m driven by the demonstrated difference a wellbeing strategy can make to the performance of an organisation and individuals.

Bringing in a wellbeing strategy is not all about the ‘feels’, either. Australia’s Black Dog Institute notes that mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety cost Australian businesses about A$11-$12 billion a year due to absenteeism, lower productivity levels, increased staff turnover and compensation claims.

The OECD’s 2018 Mental Health and Work report estimates the annual cost of poor mental health to the New Zealand economy, including health and social spending and productivity loss, is about 4-5% of GDP. (Calculated from the March 2021 GDP figure, that’s a jaw-dropping NZ$16 billion.)

Leaders need to lead

The next barrier to an effective wellbeing program is that it’s an organisation’s leaders, not human resources, who must champion the initiative.

As employees, we might appreciate free fruit and a coffee machine in the staff kitchen, but free fruit is not a wellbeing program – especially when we’re working from home during lockdown.

While many organisations have more extensive programs or wellbeing policies on the company books, the reality is they are not put into practice.

A study from Monash Business School, published in October 2020, sought to identify what was needed for women accountants to flourish in the workplace. The researchers found that “…there is disconnect between company policy and the culture of the workplace.” It cited one organisation that offered wellness days – but only once the work was completed. This was deemed too late as burnout had already set in.

A 2020 study by the Mentally-Healthy Change Group of 1500 young Australian workers in the media, marketing and creative industries (similarly high-pressure industries to law and accounting) saw 68% of respondents rate ‘educated and empathetic leaders’ as the most important input for improving mental health at work, followed by ‘leaders who lead by example’ at 65%.

Just 1% of these same respondents judged ‘motivational posters’ as essential for mental health. (That’s not to say posters or workplace yoga can’t be part of the wellbeing mix, but let’s focus on the essentials first.)

The hard work of wellbeing

The final barrier to prioritising workplace wellbeing is it takes effort. Employee wellbeing must be measured and that incurs a time, resourcing and monetary cost. An effective workplace wellbeing program covers communications and culture, reward and relationships, talent and team (it doesn’t actually require alliteration – that’s just a bonus).

It also requires consideration at an organisational, team and individual level, and must be both sustainable and measurable. No easy feat – but there is a growing industry of workplace wellbeing professionals who can help design and implement these programs.

One CA I spoke with noted that while her organisation did, in fact, have a wellbeing policy on paper – and publicly available on the company website – the policy was not actively embraced or put into practice across the business.

Quite simply, people leaders were not held accountable for enacting a culture of wellbeing within their teams. Unsurprisingly, she has since left that organisation and now works within a business that measures employee wellbeing on a regular basis. In doing so, it enables workers to see that it genuinely values the contribution, engagement and wellbeing of staff.

Clearly the intent from business is there, and clearly the desire from employees is there. However, we need to bridge the gap with resourcing and programs that educate, inspire and measure workplace wellbeing.

We need to prioritise wellbeing as a performance outcome if we are to take this uncommon opportunity that COVID-19 has given us to truly build a better future of work, and to continue to attract and retain talent within the accounting industry.

Read more:

Mental Wellness Series

As part of Mental Health Month, CA ANZ is running a two-part Mental Wellness series that’s free for CA ANZ members.

Mental Wellness Series Part 1 – Resilience and recovery during the pandemic

Tuesday 5 October from 12pm-1pm (AEDT).

Mental Wellness Series Part 2 – The power of empathy and compassion

Tuesday 12 October from 12pm-1pm (AEDT).

Mental health insights and strategies for CAs, with Petris Lapis

A complimentary one-hour CPD webinar on mental health wellbeing from Petris Lapis

From CA Library

The CA Library has resources on handling stress and promoting resilience, mental health and wellbeing. Browse what’s available at

Counting on U

Many accountants find themselves struggling with the emotional toll the pandemic has on their clients and colleagues. How can you equip yourself with the tools to improve the mental health outcomes of clients and improve your overall mental health literacy?

CA ANZ has partnered with Deakin Business School for the Counting on U program. The course is delivered online, and can help you gain the skills to navigate sensitive conversations. Afterwards, you can respond with confidence when clients or others you deal with are facing mental health issues, supporting them to get the help they need.

The course is free to eligible CA ANZ members and you will accrue 12-15 CPD hours.

For more information go to