How to achieve better employee health and wellbeing in UK PLC

Imagine an employer who loses about 30 days of productive time per employee due to IT problems. It’s likely an executive would have tough discussions with the IT suppliers or the responsible manager within the organisation. Consequences would happen if the problem persisted.

Now, imagine an employer who loses about 30 days in productivity on account of an employee coming to work in suboptimal health. In most cases there are few, if any, consequences .Most employers find it much more difficult to act and many small-to-medium sized organisations do nothing at all.

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace is an annual survey of employers and their employees sponsored by Vitality Health). Last year’s survey shows that on average UK employers lose these 30 days per employee per year due to absenteeism and presenteeism (being in suboptimal health while at work).

About 28 days out of this 30 day lost per employee can be attributed to employees coming to work when in suboptimal health and being less productive. According to our analysismental health appears to be the main factor, explaining about 30 per cent of presenteeism. Mental health problems are often compounded by lack of sleep, financial concerns, caring responsibilities and issues in the workplace, such as lack of control over what one does at work or poor relationships.

There is also a significant link between mental health and musculoskeletal conditions. When looking at demographics, it is clear that the young have much higher productivity loss and poorer mental health compared to other age groups. The same goes for those employees on relatively low pay. Overall, these trends seem to be getting worse over the years that the survey has been conducted, contributing to rising productivity loss in the workplace.

Many larger employers have a range of programmes and interventions that aim to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees. However, there is a disconnect between what employers tell us is happening within the workplace and the experience of employees recorded in the surveys.

About  50 per cent of employees have access to the programmes according to employers. From the employee survey, we know that only 22 per cent are aware of the employer programme with only about one-third of this data set participating in the programme. This is a missed opportunity. Our work on the data suggests that almost 75 per cent of employees perceive a health and wellbeing benefit from participation. Analysis of employees responding to the survey over the years also finds that employees who participate or even start involvement in any employer programme improve on a wider set of outcomes: cardiovascular health; mental health; perceptions of bullying; and productivity targets. Many of those participating are also not in the at-risk groups such as the young or those on lower incomes.

A number of factors seem to be associated with higher participation in programmes and better health and wellbeing outcomes: allowing employees time during working hours to participate; senior leadership and line manager support; and external and internal reporting on human capital. These all point to the importance of senior management showing leadership – from participation in the programmes through setting health and wellbeing as a strategic priority, and finally, monitoring progress over time. The more enlightened employers understand the prize. Happier and healthier employees are important from a corporate social responsibility point of view, but promoting employee health and wellbeing also makes complete business sense.

Christian van Stolk is a Vice President of RAND Europe. RAND Europe is a not-for- profit research organisation that conducts the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace surveys annually.