Can you afford to ignore high cost of absence?

Employers are waking up to the fact that a healthier, leaner workforce means a fitter, more productive business.

The way the figures stack up, the business case for encouraging staff to look after their health is compelling.

The CBI estimates that 168 million working days were lost through absence in 2004, costing UK employers £12bn a year.

Other estimates say stress results in 91 million lost days and obesity in 18 million days off – and the cost of sickness absence can be as much as 16% of payroll.

Organisations that have implemented health programmes – such as Royal Mail, London Underground and Standard Life Healthcare – report substantial reductions in absence levels, amounting to savings of up to £1m a year.

As well as the initial benefits, there is also a positive effect on staff loyalty and retention, and a boost to the employer brand as workers perceive their organisations to be great places to work.

This could reignite the debate about just how paternalistic an employer should be. Should HR – which usually takes responsibility for workplace well-being – be the guardian of employees’ health?

In BT’s experience the answer is yes. When it launched its health programme in a bid to tackle heart-related illness at the company (one person a fortnight dies from heart disease at BT), it was amazed that 8,000 workers signed up for it in just three days.

It doesn’t take much to make a big difference. BT is investing £40,000 in its Work Fit campaign, which will offer pedometers and health-food vouchers as well as advice on diet, lifestyle and exercise. It anticipates huge financial paybacks in terms of reduced sickness absence and ill-health, leading to increased productivity.

When assessing whether you can afford to invest in employee health, you should really be asking if you can afford not to.

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