Over the past 40 years, there have been major advances in safety at work, leading to significant reductions in fatal and major accidents.
Most employers recognise that accidents are expensive. Awareness of work-related health issues, such as noise-induced hearing loss, manual handling, and respiratory complaints has improved in recent years.
However, whilst the HSE estimate 38.8 million working days lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2019/20, the UK workforce takes more than another 100 million working days of sick leave each year for other reasons.
Vitality’s annual Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study suggests that ill-health related absence and presenteeism cost British businesses and the economy an estimated £91.9bn in 2019. On top of this, the cost of presenteeism (where people come into work, despite being unwell) is estimated to cost the UK economy £15.1billion every year.
For employers, there is therefore a cost benefit in helping employees to be healthier, not just in relation to workplace hazards, but considering their whole lifestyle. Healthier, happier employers are more productive, take less sick leave, and are more likely to stay with you if they believe their work contributes to their wellbeing.
There is a growing belief that where managers show their commitment to wellbeing programmes, workers become more engaged in traditional health and safety. The Thames Tideway Tunnel project team, for example, believes that working to improve the health of their workers is a key tool to meet their target of zero fatalities. If you get wellbeing right, it can be a positive driver for your safety culture.
However, some organisations that have invested in wellbeing programmes have been disappointed in the results. Willis Tower Watson asked over 30,000 people across the world, including over 3,500 in the UK and Ireland, about workplace wellbeing programmes. The survey found that employers and employees had very different views about the benefits.
For example, whilst 38% of UK employers believed that company wellbeing programmes encouraged employees to have a healthier lifestyle, only 23% of employees agreed. In the UK, 7 out of 10 employees asked were dissatisfied with their employers’ wellbeing programmes.
In the USA, where wellbeing programmes have been around for longer (often driven by the financial need to drive down health insurance premiums that employers pay for their staff) the news is no better – satisfaction in wellbeing programmes dropped from 4 out of 10 in a 2011 survey, to just 3 out of 10 in 2017.
What Should Employers Be Doing?
So where are employers going wrong? It turns out that providing yoga, free fruit and pyjama days might make people happier in the short term, but if that’s all you do to tackle wellbeing it’s the equivalent of giving every worker the same general-purpose goggles and gardening gloves without considering the substances they are exposed to.
Just as a great health and safety programme must focus on engagement, so any new wellbeing programme has to start by finding out what people need.
If people are worried about paying the mortgage, meeting childcare costs, or looking after a sick parent, providing a discount on a gym membership is not going to help. Do staff need financial advice, child care vouchers, or flexible working arrangements before they can think about taking up your other offers?
Read our 5 steps to making your investment in wellbeing more engaging and productive:
1. What are the key wellbeing issues for your employees?
Look at your sickness absence records. Run a survey, hold discussion groups, and train managers to listen to their staff.
Across the UK, work-related mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression are now responsible for more sickness absence days than work-related musculoskeletal disease, but your context might be different.
If diet and weight are a concern for your workforce, advice on nutrition and more strenuous exercise might be more useful than yoga classes. Manual workers might feel they get enough activity during their working day but worry about money.
2. Which of those wellbeing issues can you impact at source?
You may not be able to give everyone a pay rise, but you might be able to arrange financial advice or discounted mortgages and loans. If someone is tempted into poor eating and heavy drinking habits by work/ shift patterns, planning the work to make regular mealtimes possible will be more helpful than free fruit.
Some organisations have re-designed their workplace to encourage more activity at work, but making sure someone can leave the office on time to play a sociable game of football with their friends could have a greater benefit than giving them a standing desk.
As with Step 1, engage your employees to determine how best to tackle the issues.
3. Make work better, at source
Put plans in place to make work better. Once people have the time to exercise, shop, cook, and eat healthily, many will do it for themselves.
4. Find out what else people need
Once you have reduced the risk to wellbeing at the source, you can then look at the 'add-ons'.
Do people need cooking lessons or to have their shopping delivered to the workplace to nudge them into preparing healthier food? Would an onsite gym or access to a nearby facility make it easier to fit exercise into the day?
Keep looking at the factors you measured in Step 1. Have absence rates changed? Are survey results changing? Is the feedback from staff positive? Keep talking to the workforce - and listening to what they have to say.