Should wellbeing initiatives cover contractors and casual staff?

It might seem like the nature of their work means wellbeing compliance is enough for temporary staff, but that logic might be backwards.

At heart, the impediments to improving the wellbeing of casual and contracted workers are why these employment types are utilised in the first place. A study published in BMC Public Health in 2021 illustrates this well.  

In it, researchers examined a proof-of-concept intervention into the safety, health and wellbeing of low-wage food service workers in a multinational company. The intervention followed best practice. It began with securing senior leadership buy-in and targeted three areas that affect overall wellbeing.  

  1. Safety and ergonomics
  1. Work intensity
  1. Job enrichment

The intervention went to each worksite and facilitated the following: detailed evaluation of the existing work environment, including identifying challenges and areas for enhancement; creating an ‘action plan tool’ to address the above; consultation and technical support for site managers; tools for engaging frontline workers in the targeted changes; training and group discussions for site managers to facilitate changes.

Any unbiased reader of the above would say the intention and comprehensiveness of this intervention are excellent. Which is why it is a bit dispiriting to read the results.

Firstly, the action planning tool, which provided tasks and a timeline for addressing a worksite issue, was not completed by a single site manager. This was in spite of the tool being simplified based on feedback from those managers.

Secondly, only two thirds of the intended contacts with site managers (group sessions, phone calls, and so on) were implemented. The Job Enrichment module received the lowest number of contact points, apparently due to the time constraints of a busy holiday period.

Finally, the research team offered to attend on-site huddles with managers and employees to encourage discussion and concrete plans. While four of the five worksites took the offer up for the safety and ergonomics side of wellbeing, none did the same for work intensity or job enrichment.

The fundamental issues

So, what obstacles hindered the intervention's success?

  • Turnover. Low wage food service jobs experience a high rate of job churn, up to the managerial level. As one district manager explained to the researchers, this makes it hard to implement wellbeing solutions. “If you’re gonna implement changes, you have to have some continuity”.  
  • Project needs. As a company that offered catering to clients, the needs of those clients was the top priority. For example, the ergonomic plan of one group called for the cashier to have a chair – but the client said it wouldn’t ruin the “aesthetic”. In general, working with insistent clients left managers little time for the wellbeing intervention. One manager spoke to the plan to reduce work intensity, saying, “The easiest solution would be, well, just stop taking these last-minute requests or re-educate the customer, but easier said than done.”
  • Organisational barriers. This took a number of forms. A downsizing at the company interfered with the intervention. District managers were focused on the bottom line and site managers didn’t feel comfortable bringing up wellbeing in that context. Site managers were salaried, while frontline workers weren’t, so they worked overtime and out-of-role to cover for frontline workers who didn’t show up.

These challenges are not unique to the food service industry.

Companies tend to hire contact and casual staff in situations where the work is either sporadic or time limited. For example, food service and retail casual workers are rostered to account for surges and lulls in demand. And construction or mining workers are often hired for fixed-term contracts because they’re needed to complete specific projects.

Thus companies don’t feel employee health and happiness is a worthy investment for casual and contract staff. If the workers won’t be around for the long haul, if they can say “no” when you need them, and the intervention takes time away from getting the job done, why bother?

Why you should bother

The paradox of the above attitude is that a good wellbeing intervention turns these justifications on their head, because it addresses those exact concerns by:  

  1. Improving retention
  1. Reducing absenteeism
  1. Increasing productivity  

Regarding retention, every organisation that has rostered casual staff knows there are certain workers who excel. When they come in, sales, customer satisfaction, and productivity increase. It is therefore in the interest of the organisation to retain those staff for as long as possible; to incentivise their availability even if you can’t offer them full-time roles.

As we discussed in a previous article, wellbeing has a huge, positive impact on staff retention. We estimated that a company with 100 full time employees could be saving itself about $408,600 a year if all staff reported the highest level of wellbeing – in large part due to reduced turnover costs. So it stands to reason that if your star casual or contract worker perceives your organisation as caring about their health, safety, and job satisfaction, they’ll stick around.

As for absenteeism; one reason those site managers in the food service study couldn’t implement the intervention was they were short-staffed – workers would call in sick, no-show, or otherwise not be available. In our Wellbeing Reinvented report, we talk about how single-day absences can indicate burnout (the staff member is taking the time off to recover). Having wellbeing solutions to address this would help.

Finally, productivity. Not only do the reduction in burnout, absenteeism and stress improve it, feeling better is directly linked with harder work. A 2020 substantive review of the research puts it drily but succinctly: “Higher levels of subjective wellbeing has been linked to greater labour

productivity, and the causal nature of this link has been demonstrated in experimental studies.”

Is it right for us?

So when is targeting wellbeing interventions at casual staff and contractors worth it? The evidence suggests you will see a return on investment so long as the intervention is effective. The question then becomes, how do you make the intervention effective?

This is a case where the answer is simply expressed but hard to achieve. Interventions are effective when they are well-designed to the requirements of your company and you have organisational buy-in. As the food service study shows, senior leadership buy-in is a must, but not enough. The multinational company experienced its breakdown at the district manager and on-site manager levels.

If you’d like to find out how your organisation might go about securing the ROI of an effective wellbeing intervention, get in touch with Healthy Business. Our approach is consultative from the outset because we understand that every business is different and that bespoke approaches achieve the most outstanding results.

If it’s too early for a conversation but you want to know more about the business case for wellbeing, check out our Wellbeing Reinvented report. It has data, observations, and case studies that demonstrate how employers have maximised the attraction, retention, and productivity of their workforces.

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