Stressed and unhealthy employees aren’t good for morale or the business, so what can you do to encourage better health and fitness?
According to research by PwC, staff absence costs employers a total of £29 billion every year, with the average worker taking off nine days as a result of ill health. This can be due to physical illness but also the impact of stress and issues linked to mental health in the workplace, which has been rising in recent years as employees find themselves under more pressure to perform. On top of that, stressed and unhealthy employees are less likely to be effective or engaged, further impacting productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Yet despite the growing understanding of the cost of having unhealthy employees, relatively few employers are doing anything about it. According to research by Group Risk Development (GRiD), just 18% are encouraging staff to improve their health, and only 22% are taking steps to get employees to be more active.
Small steps can make a difference
Employers can start by making some simple changes around the workplace. “Employers are in a great position to encourage improved nutrition, hydration and activity,” says Lucy Whitehall, wellbeing consultant at the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association, an organisation set up to help accountants better manage their health.
Whitehall suggests putting water dispensers around the office to help staff stay hydrated, instead of sticking solely to caffeine, and the Association has also deployed a wellbeing app so its members and own staff can track their activity during the day.
Take advantage of summer
The summer months provide most opportunity to get staff more active. Jamie Mackenzie, director of marketing at Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, suggests latching on to the Olympic theme. “This could include introducing pedometers and encouraging colleagues to compete with one another to see who can take the most steps and take the ‘gold medal’,” he says. “Promoting local exercise classes or healthy lunches during the summer are also good short-term ways to encourage healthy habits.”
In the longer term, setting up a gym membership or cycle-to-work scheme could help people make exercise a part of their daily lives. The Cycle to Work Alliance suggests 86% of employees who take part in such scheme have seen health benefits, and 77% of employers say they have also seen improvements.
Don’t just target the healthy
Yet there is a concern that such initiatives will only be used by those who already have a degree of interest in becoming healthier, and that it is the harder-to-reach people who employers should really be targeting. “Traditional corporate health and wellbeing programmes can end up skimming the surface,” says Kirsten Samuel, CEO at employee wellbeing company, Kamwell.
“The benefits might look ideal: discounted gym memberships, cycle-to-work schemes, jogging clubs and lunchtime yoga. But these kinds of offers look and feel like they’ve been designed by the health conscious for people like themselves. They can be divisive, unappealing and in terms of overall organisational health, ineffective.”
Initiatives that engage everyone
One option could be to offer health screening to all employees, which can then be used to tailor specific initiatives. Food business Danone, for instance, managed to identify issues around obesity and a lack of Vitamin D in its workforce after using Bluecrest’s screening service, and has since reduced the number of employees with high blood pressure by 16% and those with raised BMI by 9 per cent.
Other initiatives can directly target specific issues. Back pain and musculoskeletal injuries are a major cause of absence, so in some workforces physiotherapy might be appropriate. Phil Clayton, managing director of Physio Med, gives the example of Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust, which estimates it has saved some 6,762 working days by providing fast access to treatment rather than waiting for staff to use NHS physiotherapy treatment.
Be mindful of mental health in the workplace
Physical health is only part of the issue, and employers must also target mental health and stress if they want to make a real difference to employee wellbeing. Employee assistance programmes can have an impact here, and these are often already included as part of broader group risk policies, alongside other benefits such as mental health first aid training and fast-track access to counselling.
Allowing staff to have more control over their own lives and working patterns can also make a big difference in terms of reducing stress, suggests Daniel Lucy, head of research at Roffey Park Institute. “By developing a management style centered on trust, employers can enhance feelings of control and autonomy, which are both key aspects of a healthy workplace,” he says.
“There is plenty of evidence to show that lack of control and autonomy can contribute to a whole host of negative health outcomes, such as increased incidence of mental ill-health, musculoskeletal disorders and cardiovascular disease.”
These are all measures worth considering as elements of an overall wellbeing strategy.
Employee wellbeing isn’t just their own business, it’s actually a big factor in yours.