Getting wellbeing on board

BITC’s Business Action on Health (BAH) campaign aims to put businesses and public sector employers in the front line of making the workplace a setting to promote people’s health and wellbeing. And it argues that this makes sound business sense.

BAH’s campaign aims to get 75% of FTSE 100 companies committing to boardroom reporting on employee wellbeing by 2011. In practice, this means reporting on wellbeing in a specific corporate responsibility report rather than necessarily in the annual company report.

Participating organisations will be expected to demonstrate that they have set a policy, identified risks and performance standards, set targets, and monitored progress against them.

Business case

Next month BITC, which has 850 members, is running a Business Summit to help business leaders share good practice and get the message across that the recession makes it more important than ever to invest in employees’ health.

BAH chairman Alex Gourlay, who is also chief executive of the health and beauty division of retailer Alliance Boots, believes this is a moment of truth for responsible business.

“There are a lot of people who would say that it’s harder to invest in this area when money is tight, but the time to be really socially responsible is actually when things are tough outside,” says Gourlay, speaking on behalf of the BAH campaign.

“My feeling is that the businesses that will come out at the end of the recession strongest will be those that focus on and spend time and effort on the management and wellbeing of employees.”

The campaign aims to spearhead the trend for employers to look beyond the traditional health and safety approach, which focuses on limiting the risk of ill health and injury. The new approach positions employee wellbeing as part of business strategy, and as a driver of employee engagement and productivity.

Louise Aston, BAH director, stresses the business case for investing in the health of staff. “The business case for finance directors on making the return on investment is powerful. For every £1 you invest, you get £3 back. It’s a false economy to cut back on investment in employee health and wellbeing initiatives.”

Government strategy

Another factor which may help convince employers to embrace the new approach is the government’s Health Work and Wellbeing strategy, launched in October 2005, and led by the first national director of work and health, Dame Carol Black.

In November 2008, the government announced a £45m investment over the next three years to cut the costs of ill health to the economy. However, if the growth of employee access to health and wellbeing services is to be sustained beyond that period, it is clear that employers will need to be persuaded to invest more money and raise the strategic importance of the issue.

Black hopes they will rise to the challenge by adopting tools such as Business Healthcheck, which helps make the business case for wellbeing initiatives. It was jointly launched by the government and BITC in 2008.

“We need employers engaged in identifying what could be done to improve health and wellbeing in collaboration with government,” says Black. “Government needs to help employers make the business case. The Business Healthcheck tool needs to be made simpler to use, for example.”

However, not everybody is convinced that companies that promote responsible business practice can offer credible leadership during an economic crisis triggered by irresponsible investment in the financial sector. For example, environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt pointed out in his blog in October 2008 that banks such as HBOS and Lloyds TSB were innovators in corporate responsibility. Porrit argued that “the seductive pull of big money will always trump the platitudes of corporate responsibility”.

This view argues that the benefits of initiatives such as employee wellbeing can be wiped out by irresponsible business practice in other areas, and raises doubts about whether organisations will be prepared to invest in wellbeing initiatives while cash is tight and jobs are being shed. The big question is how to prevent corporate responsibility amounting to little more than a kind of ‘Red Nose Day’ for business, where everybody gets to appear charitable and feel good about themselves, and then go back to business as usual.


Aston believes the answer is to make well-being part of core business objectives. “Responsible business practices must be built into the decision-making processes, embedded into the mentality and culture and DNA of business so deeply that, in time, corporate social responsibility is no longer seen as a separate function of the business, or narrowly focused on social issues,” she says.

She points out that the government’s response to Black’s 2008 review of working-age people, Improving Health and Work, supported board-level reporting.

There is evidence that wellbeing is growing in importance among both employers and employees. Since BITC introduced a corporate social responsibility index to its website in 2007, wellbeing has been the most frequently selected topic by visitors. And in consultancy Towers Perrin’s 2008 global workforce survey, employees chose senior management commitment to wellbeing as the top driver of employee engagement.

BITC’s Aston says that the definition of wellbeing has to shift from negative criteria, such as absence costs, towards positive ones, such as the benefits for productivity and staff engagement of a more resilient workforce.

He points out that half of companies do not even record absence data, giving them no base line for improvement.

Gourlay says his company is changing its approach in line with changing health priorities among employees, especially diseases caused by modern lifestyles.


Organisations such as Royal Mail have proved a big return on investment in their return-to-work programmes. In an organisation like Parcelforce, part of the Royal Mail group, absence has a direct cost, and the company uses a wide range of metrics and depot performance reviews to track it, points out Peter Macdonald, HR director.

However, the benefits of wellbeing initiatives are less tangible and easy to measure. Alliance Boots pays a lot of attention to the parts of the employee survey which relate to engagement.

“The employee engagement measure is a good proxy,” says Gourlay. “It tells you how motivated people are, how proud they are to work for the business, if they have the tools to do the job, whether they understand the purpose of it, and so on. The big measures that are important in the boardroom are the ‘great place to work’ scores, absence trends and staff retention.”

There is universal agreement that line management behaviour is key to limiting absence caused by stress-related mental health, and in nurturing employee resilience. Alliance Boots measures managers’ performance partly on how they relate to people and how their subordinates see them.

The notion of ‘good work’, promoted by organisations such as the Work Foundation and supported by the government, is about improving productivity through working practices that ensure staff have a sense of purpose, autonomy, and allow flexibility.

Even the smallest employers can improve their absence rates by introducing flexible working. Julie Cashell, manager of Oaklands Care Home, which employs 20 people, says changing rotas to fit around the needs of staff cut absence to zero in the last financial year.

“Odd days off sick were causing so much stress and strain on staff, and you need a full staff to look after people here,” says Cashell. “Now people are working when they want to work.”


Another way to embed wellbeing into management practice is to look for synergies with brands and customers. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which has 250 members, including brands such as Nestlé, Danone and Mars, draws on brand marketing expertise to promote employee health.

“Our nutritionists and food scientists mean that it is an obvious thing to apply in the workplace,” says Julian Hunt, communications director at the FDF.

Manufacturer Unilever has introduced a Fit Business campaign. It aligns in-house nutrition expertise, occupational health and branding with external government campaigns for wellbeing, says health and productivity manager Dean Patterson, whose job title in itself is revealing.

Linking campaigns with government initiatives helps reinforce the message and can be cost effective. The FDF, for example, is working with the Scottish Parliament to provide consultants for smaller businesses to help them develop cost-effective tailor-made solutions to employee health issues.

Grants are often available for cycling-to-work schemes, and the government produces promotional material for its public health campaigns such as Change4Life which can be used in the workplace. The message from BAH is that interventions need not cost much.

One essential principle is to make sure that employees choose to take part in initiatives, rather than feeling obliged to join in. The FDF’s Hunt stresses the importance of having members of staff who become ambassadors for schemes.

“One of the things that jumps out at me is how you need to find advocates for what you are doing who can engage with people on the production line – the bottom up approach,” he says.

Macdonald also warns against heavy-handed approaches. “I don’t think employers should try and boss people around and act like a nanny state,” he says. “But people spend a lot of time at work, and there’s a channel to communicate the message. But it stops there, and after that it is up to individuals.”

One of the key messages is that businesses should be looking beyond the recession when they consider employee wellbeing. As BITC’s checklist for restructuring, published in January this year, warns: “A hard-fought reputation either with employees, customers or community stakeholders, once lost is extremely difficult to regain when the economic situation improves.”

BITC Health and Work Summit: 12 May 2009 Central London

This one-day conference is a must-attend event for anyone responsible for maximising the value of employees at a time when this is the key challenge facing UK organisations.

This summit will enable delegates to:

  • Make the business case for investing in employee health and wellbeing

  • Beat the recession by building the talent and resilience of your people

  • Cut the costs of presenteeism and absence and boost employee engagement

  • Be inspired by award-winning case studies

  • Take away a suite of new tools providing support and guidance for companies of all sizes

  • Be prepared for the government’s plans to improve the health and wellbeing of working-age people.

Learn from leading experts and employers:

  • Stephen Howard, chief executive, Business in the Community (BITC)

  • Alex Gourlay, chairman, Business Action on Health, and chief executive, Health & Beauty Division, Alliance Boots

  • Dame Carol Black, national director, health and work

  • Stephen Flanagan, managing director, Bupa Home Health Care

  • Stephen Bevan, managing director, The Work Foundation

  • Louise Aston, director, Business Action on Health, BITC

  • Peter Macdonald, HR director, Parcelforce Worldwide

  • Dr Margaret Samuel, chief medical officer, EDF Energy

  • David Batman, group chief medical officer, Nestlé UK

For queries relating to registration, please contact

Merinda Bradshaw: Telephone: 020 8652 3887 E-mail: [email protected]

For all other enquiries, please contact:

Aileen Cremins: Telephone: 020 8652 8403 E-mail: [email protected]

Free BITC resources and tools

The following can be downloaded from the BITC website

  • Nurture Your People and Grow your Business – contains key information on the Business Action on Health campaign

  • Healthy Eating Toolkit – practical guidance on promoting healthy eating as part of an integrated health and wellbeing programme.

  • Wealth from Health – An action model for employers.

  • People: Our Greatest Asset? – advice on the bottom-line benefits of investing in the health and wellbeing of employees.

  • Business Healthcheck – an evaluation tool for organisations investing in health and wellbeing.

  • Resources page:

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