Employee health and wellbeing can help bridge the UK’s productivity and engagement gap

Published to support the Free Your Mind California cycle ride in support of the Black Dog campaign on mental health.

Employee health and wellbeing programmes should play a major part in helping the UK close the productivity gap with competing economies, especially with an ageing workforce and a rise in long-term health conditions.

Jane Abraham, an independent specialist advisor on work, health and wellbeing and the managing director of Flourish Workplace, outlines the steps employers should take in an article published as the “Free your mind” sponsored cycle ride takes place in California. The ride is in support of the Black Dog campaign to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.

Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that physical and mental health issues have on business performance. Apart from the obvious costs of absence and turnover, healthy and engaged employees are much more likely to be productive, committed and provide better customer service. These are all things that the UK economy desperately needs to grow.

More on employee health and wellbeing programmes

Employee wellbeing policy

Good practice on wellbeing

The UK is performing poorly against its G7 competitors in terms of productivity and engagement (ONS, 2015). Indeed, in July 2015 business secretary Sajid Javid described the UK’s productivity gap as “the economic challenge of our times”.

Employers are also competing in a challenging marketplace to attract high-quality employees with the skills and talent they need, while balancing the needs of multiple generations as workforce demographics change. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates that, by 2024, nearly 50% of the UK adult population will be aged 50 or over.

The removal of the default retirement age in 2011 will eventually result in an increase of older workers, most of whom have been exposed to lifestyle factors for longer and are therefore at more risk of chronic disease. But many will chose to continue working into old age for social and economic reasons, and the challenge will be how to support this.

Free your mind

This feature is part of a short series focusing on positive mental health and wellbeing at work. It is in conjunction with the Free Your Mind initiative, a sponsored 500 mile solo ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles between the 15 and 21 June by Stephen Haynes. The initiative is in support of the Black Dog Campaign to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, support future research into treatment and to provide care and support for people suffering with mental ill-health. If you would like to make a donation to SANE and the Black Dog Campaign, you can do this here.

Free Your Mind was made possible with the kind support of the Wellbeing People, StepJockey and Cranleigh Freight Services, alongside media partner Occupational Health & Wellbeing.

On top of this, many businesses face an uphill struggle as the economy continues to battle its way out of recession. The introduction of the national living wage, and public-sector cuts squeezing the local economy, means that there is less money for businesses to invest in people and new equipment.

This is offset currently by advantageous prices on energy consumption, transportation, food and steel, but this cannot last forever and many businesses will need to get more productive quickly to survive. The present situation is unsustainable for the future.

There is much discussion about the need to invest in innovation, skills training and technology to close this gap, but what about the needs of businesses’ most valuable asset, its workforce?

Many UK workers are not healthy enough to achieve the much-needed productivity improvements that the UK requires. Employees are working for longer, often with work-limiting illnesses or injuries, and with the likelihood of chronic disease due to lifestyle choices (Bevan, 2010). It is estimated that in the UK about 300,000 working-age people leave the workplace due to ill health every year on average (Black and Frost, 2011). This has significant cost implications for business, the economy, individuals and the health service.

Role of preventative health and wellbeing

It is time to consider the role that preventative health and wellbeing initiatives can play in addressing the challenges that businesses, and the UK economy, face. Of course, some companies are already leading the way by investing in a range of employee health and wellbeing initiatives and benefits, but others still consider this as “fluffy”, or not their responsibility.

The evidence in the UK now firmly points towards the fact that organisations investing in appropriate, and relevant, workplace health and wellbeing interventions have a commercial advantage over their competitors. And, rather than being seen as something that is “nice to do” or “morally right”, there is a sound business case for the significant return on investment that these interventions can have on the bottom line. We know that healthy employees make business sense.

Employers are perfectly placed to influence many aspects of their employees’ physical and psychosocial wellbeing in ways that can improve productivity, resilience, commitment and attendance.

Apart from common colds and infections, the top causes of absence in the UK are musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues. In fact, the two are often closely linked with mental health and present in many who have joint, muscle, or back pain. Anxiety and depression can stem from living with chronic pain, increasing the length of sickness absence, so early intervention is crucial.

The UK is not alone in this, as poor mental health is probably one of the biggest issues for employers and employees globally. Joint pain is also highly prevalent. According to the UK’s chief medical officer, the most common mental health problems of stress, depression and anxiety account for approximately 70 million working days lost every year in the UK, costing between £70 and £100 billion annually (CMO, 2013).

The cost and impact of presenteeism, where people go to work when ill due to mental ill-health, is likely to be double this figure. Mental health charities tell us that one in four adults will experience mental health problems every year with one in five admitting to taking a day off work due to stress (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2007). However, despite efforts over the last couple of years to address the stigma surrounding the disclosure of mental health problems at work, less than half of UK employees feel able to discuss their mental health with their immediate manager (Metlife, 2016). Men are more reluctant than female colleagues – indeed, many men will not talk about it to anyone, even those closest to them.

So what can businesses do?

Doing nothing is no longer an option, and simply putting in place measures to manage sickness absence robustly is not enough. Employers need to focus on prevention and putting in place initiatives that proactively address the challenges outlined. Employers have an ideal opportunity to create the perfect environment and culture for their people to thrive.

But where do they start? The first step is recognising that good health and wellbeing is a priority for the business and will help it to achieve its objectives. Senior managers at board level need to be convinced of the business case, and this needs to align to the businesses goals and objectives so that it can be measured for effectiveness. This will help to encourage a broader culture of support, openness and community throughout the organisation, and help to break down the stigma attached to mental ill health in particular.

Employers should gain a better understanding of the drivers for health and wellbeing within their own workforce, as every workplace will be different. So they need to ask employees what affects their health and wellbeing and act on it.

Employee engagement and health and wellbeing surveys can help with this, as can health screening if available. Also, absence data, feedback from exit interviews, and statistics on early retirement due to ill-health need to be analysed. The issue employers need to examine is why people are off sick or leaving the organisation, and what they can do about it.

This analysis provides the employer with the intelligence to prioritise and develop solutions that will best meet the needs of employees, helping them to be more likely to succeed, and increase participation. If repeated at regular intervals, it can also help to benchmark where the business is now, and by using people data, it can help with monitoring and evaluating the progress, and increase the effectiveness of the interventions on an ongoing basis. Identifying what is and is not working well helps you to react quickly to address the reasons why interventions are successful.

When considering what to implement in a wellbeing strategy, think in terms of prevention, intervention, protection and the management of health and wellbeing. Look around you to see what is available locally that can help you deliver it. There are many agencies and charities that are keen to work with workplaces and their employees for free.

Ensuring that line managers are adequately trained to communicate with their team and identify any problems early on, so that they can put in place effective solutions before things escalate, is essential. Line managers play a pivotal role in employee health and wellbeing, as they are the ones who have the most contact with employees, so build their confidence and experience of managing people by training them properly. Allow them the time to get to know their own staff so that they can talk easily with them and spot any changes in behaviour.

Based on your workforce needs, introduce opportunities for health promotion. Promote healthier lifestyles by encouraging stair use, healthy options in canteens and vending, and by linking with local public health support. Empower your employees to take responsibility for their own health, and the health of their colleagues, and create a community that is fun so that people want to come to work.

The cost of ill health to employers, and the business benefits of high employee wellbeing and engagement, means that any money invested in employees’ health and wellbeing will be well spent. This is particularly important now as we try to close the productivity and engagement gap with our global competitors and as our economy continues to struggle.

This will be increasingly challenging in the light of an ageing workforce and the potential risk of rising chronic disease, coupled with the talent and skills shortage we face. Anything that can improve productivity and can help you attract the best talent as an employer of choice can only be a good thing.


Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer (2013): “Public mental health priorities: investing in the evidence”.

Bevan, S (2010). “The business case for employees health and wellbeing – a report prepared for Investors in People UK”. The Work Foundation.

Black C, Frost D (2011). “Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence”.

Health and Social Care Information Centre (2009). “Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey”.

Office for National Statistics (2016). “International comparisons of productivity – final estimates: 2014”.

Metlife (2016). “Organisational Resilience – insights into and practical ideas for building resilience in the workplace”.


About Jane Abraham

Jane Abraham is an independent specialist adviser on work, health and wellbeing and is the managing director of Flourish Workplace. She is currently an associate working with a number of organisations, including the University of Exeter, C3 Collaborating for Health, and the Work Foundation.
No comments yet.

Leave a Reply