Company health programmes can lead to a reduction in absence rates caused by sickness, and higher productivity and employee engagement, resulting in financial benefits for businesses.
Adidas (UK) and Quintiles were announced as Britain’s Healthiest Companies in June 2013 (mid-sized and large organisation winners respectively), having had the foresight to ensure the long-term health of their staff and, as a result, their balance sheets. However, the picture for UK plc is not so rosy.
Britain’s Healthiest Company research of nearly 10,000 UK employees, launched by health insurer PruHealth, shows that the UK workforce has bad lifestyle habits that will have a long-term effect in terms of years lost from their lives.
The research used PruHealth’s Vitality Age algorithm – using results from more than 5,000 studies and developed with academics – which gives people an understanding of their true level of health by assessing if a person’s health-risk age matches their actual chronological age. Vitality Age gives an estimate of years of life lost or gained by taking into account the presence or absence of certain risk factors, such as smoking, stress or poor nutrition.
The results showed that 86% of employees have an average Vitality Age of more than four years older than their real age, and one in five are more than eight years older, due to unhealthy lifestyles reducing their life expectancy.
Nearly one-third (31.2%) of employees have three or more risk factors, putting them at serious risk of ill health. The biggest contributing factors for a higher Vitality Age are lack of physical activity and being overweight. Some 59% of staff are not doing enough physical exercise and one in seven does no exercise at all. Nearly one in five is classed as overweight or obese.
Employers pay the price
Employers will feel the impact of this, as they will have to pick up the bill for their staff having more chronic diseases as a consequence of this unhealthy behaviour. It is therefore in their interests to do something about it. Not only will organisations reap the benefits now – in terms of a more engaged and productive workforce – but also in the longer term by avoiding employee absences from work due to sickness (absenteeism) and lower productivity while at work (presenteeism).
The working population spends a large proportion of their waking hours at work and employers have the means of communicating directly with them and of providing them with access to health interventions”
Companies can play a vital role in encouraging workers to follow a healthy lifestyle and address preventable causes of some of the most prevalent conditions – particularly tobacco use, poor diet (including harmful use of alcohol) and lack of physical activity. Against the backdrop of an ageing population, rising retirement age and an increase in those chronic diseases linked to lifestyle, it is becoming more critical than ever to ensure the long-term health of the workforce.
Employers are in an ideal position to make a difference and drive the change. The working population spends a large proportion of their waking hours at work and employers have the means of communicating directly with them and of providing them with access to health interventions.
They also have a financial incentive and are starting to recognise the link between a healthy workforce and a healthy bottom line. The single biggest driver of employee engagement is feeling that an employer cares about their employees’ health and wellbeing, and when staff feel this way they are more likely to be engaged and loyal, resulting in higher productivity and profitability and better customer support.
Consequently, corporate wellness interventions in the UK are becoming more mainstream, but they still have some way to go. Budgets are not being spent in the most effective ways and wellness interventions only touch the tip of the iceberg. Two of the biggest areas responsible for chronic disease – smoking and nutrition – are not often targeted at all and the wellness programmes that are offered rarely provide enough motivation for staff to change their health behaviour.
Implementing wellness programmes
It is difficult to prescribe a “one- size-fits-all” solution, as interventions will differ for each organisation based on their size, their degree of sophistication in wellness and the demographics of their workforce.
However, the principles for an effective wellness programme are that it should:
- provide employees with an awareness of their current health status, as there is often a large disparity between their actual health status and their perception of their health;
- be comprehensive and cover the full spectrum of wellness, rather than offering disparate initiatives – programmes can be effective only to the extent that they are relevant for each individual employee;
- enable all employees to engage, regardless of starting health status, to help reduce the risk of those who are chronically ill and at risk, and maintain the health of those with healthy lifestyles;
- remove actual and perceived barriers to engagement by offering discounts to interventions or by providing access to them in the workplace;
- ensure commitment and drive from leadership to embed the culture within the organisation, as it is one of the most critical success factors for workplace wellness; and
- encourage engagement and lifestyle behaviour change by providing incentives and running competitions.