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How employers are embracing a preventative approach to health and wellbeing

Employers are increasingly realising they have a responsibility to change employee behaviours around health and wellbeing

Nick Martindale recently wrote a fantastic article highlighting some steps that employers could take to instil a preventative approach to health and wellbeing within the workplace – here are the highlights and key points.

While many companies have put things into place to ensure those who are sick return to work timeously, it is only recently that attention has been focused on preventing people from becoming ill in the first place and being proactive in improving both health and fitness of employees.

A 2015 survey by Aon Employee Benefits found that 75% of employers now believe they have a responsibility to try and change employee behaviours around health and wellbeing and that such a strategy makes commercial sense.

“The fact that employers recognise that good employee health is important, and that they have a central role in positively influencing employee lifestyle and behaviour risks, is encouraging,” says Matthew Lawrence, head of broking and proposition for health and risk at Aon Employee Benefits. “Employers can help facilitate the right environment for this through their culture; a focus on informing, educating, nudging and providing targeted benefits, services and programmes; and finally effective communication.”

Making a start

Martindale states that the problem is that many businesses don’t know quite where to start. Research by Axa in April 2016 found 77% of senior managers in medium and large businesses said their organisation had a health and wellbeing strategy, but a fifth said they hadn’t seen any benefit as a result. “This signifies a lack of connection between purporting to have a strategy and it making a perceptible difference,” suggests Nick Jeal, head of corporate marketing at AXA PPP healthcare. “A better understanding of the drivers of employee health and wellbeing can help align interventions to address the particular requirements of your business more effectively.”

Xerox HR Services senior consultant Chris Evans says a good starting point is to carry out a health assessment of the business to identify its own specific needs and any areas of concern. “Using health assessments is an excellent method of establishing baseline data from which to navigate,” he says. “Typically we would define wellbeing in three categories – physical, mental and financial – and interestingly they are all interrelated, which means that whatever programmes are deployed they can impact all three areas.”

Alongside this, however, there needs to be a broader culture which understands and promotes the importance of workplace health. “Businesses need to make this part of the organisational culture and embed it from the top down, to demonstrate to employees how committed the business is to their wellbeing,” says Nicki Cresswell, wellbeing co-ordinator at the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA), which often deals with both physical and mental health issues. “This can be done from directors leaving on time twice a week, through to wellbeing days when massages or health MOT checks are available to all employees. Even small measures, such as water dispensers near to desks, will encourage healthy habits.”

Getting physical

George Anderson, a health and fitness coach who provides advice and guidance to businesses says, “It’s possible to start making a difference with something as simple as introducing healthier options at the staff canteen, or replacing chocolate and fizzy drink vending machines with fruit, packs of nuts and smoothies,” he says. Other options include discounted gym memberships, on-site workout classes, educational workshops or team challenges like the Three Peaks or London Marathon, he adds.

Perhaps a cycle-to-work scheme could be introduced amongst the team.  A survey by the Cycle to Work Alliance suggests that 89% of employers see health improvements among staff after introducing a scheme, including increased fitness levels, lung capacity and reduced stress levels.

“Cycling to work five times a week can burn 4,000 calories, based on an average seven-mile commute,” says Steve Edgell, managing director of Cycle Solutions. “Studies have also shown cycling to work can reduce the risk of diabetes, low blood pressure and the chance of a heart attack or stroke by up to 50%. This type of exercise can improve mental health and wellbeing too; riding a bike can trigger an endorphin rush, reducing stress levels and making employees feel generally happier.”

Health screening

Individual health screenings can give employees valuable information on key health indicators such as blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), as well provide guidance on the small lifestyle changes that can make a big difference to an individual’s health and wellbeing.

These screenings can provide the employer with valuable data, in some cases this can identify particular areas which require attention; Bluecrest Wellness managing director Pete Blencowe gives the example of multinational food business Danone, which found it had an issue with a lack of vitamin D in staff during the winter months, prompting it to provide sprays to employees.

Sometimes the area of concern could be mental over physical health which these screenings can test for.  Carol Porter, head of commercial and communications at The Health Insurance Group, said: “These are intended to help employees deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their job performance, health and wellbeing, and can include short-term counselling and referral services for mental health issues.” Employees often receive free access to these services as part of group income protection policies.

Work-life balance

Work-life balance can be a tricky thing to conquer, however caution needs to be taken that employees are not under so much work-related pressure that they end up becoming unwell. “We work in cultures where longer hours and ‘presenteeism’ are often encouraged,” says Sarah Rudder, a consultant at Thales Learning and Development.

“We’re now seeing reports of ‘leavism’ where people are using annual leave instead of sick leave, and using days off to catch up on work. Emails are responded to 24/7 and this is deemed to be the norm. We eat ‘al-desko’ and don’t take breaks. We’ve lost our boundaries as individuals, and employers aren’t encouraging people to put those back in place.” Organisations need to have a culture where it is acceptable to talk about issues, and where staff can take regular breaks and work flexibly when required, she adds.

Line managers are key in identifying any potential issues or signs of stress in their employees, says CABA’s Cresswell. “A manager who recognises the problem and puts a solution in place quickly will help alleviate stress before it becomes a major issue,” she says. “For example, if an employee finds lots of meetings or disruption stressful, it may be beneficial for them to work from home twice a week to get their work done.”  However, they do need training in this, she adds, including discussing how people are feeling within their one-to-one meetings and noticing any changes in behaviour.

Demonstrating a return on investment

Obviously the positive of having healthier staff also needs to be reflected within the companies return on investment.  There are a number of ways this can be done including staff wellbeing surveys which can provide an overview of the health of the workforce as a whole.

“Sending these out every six months and monitoring them against a benchmark can provide a snapshot of employee sentiment,” says Cresswell.

“This enables businesses to identify issues, implement solutions and then ask again, hopefully highlighting an improvement. It also enables target setting and new areas to improve.”

The most convincing evidence though will come in the form of reduced absence costs; something the CIPD estimates costs every employer £554 per year for each employee, even before the impact of presenteeism is taken into account. “Whatever the cause, the consequences of ill-health can be calamitous for a business,” points out AXA PPP’s Jeal. “Why wouldn’t businesses want to address this?”

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