Employee health and wellness programmes are the cornerstone to real business success.
In 2019, the world of work means that in the prime days of human life, we are engaged in the global workforce. Being productive, personally and while contributing to society, may be the biggest impact a person makes on the world, in their lifetime. Unfortunately, the global workforce is accomplishing this at a destructive pace.
Promoting health in the workplace is vital
Vitality’s annual study in the United Kingdom – Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study – is a leading source of data on health and productivity for the global workforce. Funded by Vitality and compiled by research institute, RAND Europe, the 2018/9 study found that ill health costs the UK economy 35.6 productive days lost per employee per year, translating into an £81bn or R1 620bn.
Writing about the survey in the Financial Mail UK, Yik-Ying Teo Dean from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore said: “The increasingly sedentary nature of work demands that we place greater emphasis on health promotion, as Singapore is doing. Traditional ideas about workplace wellbeing focused on occupational health and safety, which was appropriate because they arose in an era when most jobs were blue-collar and many workplaces were full of hazards.”
“Workplace hazards have evolved, however, from toxic environments and the risk of physical injury to the situation today in developed countries, with risks arising from sedentary jobs and stress. The greatest hazards for many are no longer hearing loss or accidents caused by machines, for example, but the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes or burnout-linked depression. People spend between a quarter and a third of their waking life at work, making the workplace one of the most important environments for promoting and maintaining health,” he wrote.
NCDs cause absenteeism and lower productivity
The British survey found that stress, smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet (including high alcohol consumption) continue to plague the workforce. Key findings include that:
- Productivity loss is higher amongst lower income workers and younger workers.
- 21.5% of employees showed low work engagement, while only 12.7% showed high work engagement.
What is consistent across the world, is that chronic conditions or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) linked to poor lifestyle habits over time, are causing absenteeism and productivity loss for people and companies.
In addition, nearly 40% of employees say they sleep less than seven hours per night, and approximately 45% have problems with the quality of their sleep. Younger employees are less likely to eat the recommended five fruits and vegetables per day, and are more likely to binge drink or to smoke
What about South Africa?
At least half of the South African workforce of employees have five or more risk factors outside the healthy range. While 63% do not meet the physical activity guidelines for good health, 43% are not in a healthy weight range and 34% do not eat well. This has led to a high prevalence of NCDs.
A 2016 study found correlations between the UK and SA workforce. “On average, the South African participants reported fewer healthy nutritional habits (fruit and vegetable consumption differences were not significant but consumption of sugary drinks were) and also reported less physical activity than their UK counterparts,“ said one of the study authors, Dr Deepak Patel, Principal Clinical Specialist at Vitality SA.
“Only 30.8% of the South African participants achieved healthy guideline levels of physical activity compared with 40.7% of the UK participants. In both countries there is evident room for improvement, but in South Africa, more concerted effort is needed,” he added.
Solutions for a global problem
The British survey found that organisations which had a wellness programme, like Vitality, in place, offered more than 20 workplace health interventions, such as fresh fruit and vegetables in the workplace or clinical screening. For medium and large organisations, this increases to an average of 35 interventions.
Interestingly, 74% of employees who participated in any given intervention felt a positive effect on their health, but only 27% of employees, on average, were aware of the interventions made available to them by their employer.
Longitudinal analysis of workplace health interventions by RAND Europe for Vitality from 2014 to 2018, showed that those employees who consistently participated in programmes designed to support physical and mental wellbeing, tended to be healthier and more productive.
How wellness programmes make all the difference
One difficulty for employers seeking to engage more actively is an evidence gap, the data “proving” that the effectiveness of any particular intervention can sometimes be less than robust.
“There seems to be increasing focus on how to calculate a return on investment on wellness,” says Shaun Subel, director of corporate wellness strategy at Vitality Health UK.
Subel warns that simply adding additional wellness programmes will not necessarily provide a corresponding benefit. “There’s not a linear link,” he says. Employees who are already committed will often be responsive when offered more options, but companies can achieve far bigger returns if they can accomplish the harder task of getting those who are unengaged to participate.
Subel said incentives for employees — rewards of some kind for choosing salads rather than chips, for example — are fundamental to achieving the best results. “Engagement of senior executives in the initiatives is also an indicator for success,“ he says.
In an article with the Financial Mail, Peter Simpson, Chief Executive of UK utility company Anglian Water, says: “Wellbeing is written into our business plan and our annual reporting,” he says. “It has become a strategic boardroom issue. Employees should be on the balance sheet in the same way as you account for cash. People think it’s a bolt-on, but we say this is part of our business strategy.”
The South African workforce is amongst the most stressed in the world, according to a Bloomberg Business survey which rated our stress levels second, only to Nigeria.
It is important that employers understand the cost of present but disengaged employees on business and ultimately the impact of poor health on a company’s bottom line.