How occupational health can help optimise wellbeing

With many staff keen to adopt healthier lifestyles, now is a good time for organisations to look at their wellbeing policies. Chris Pinner looks at how embracing wellbeing can make a real difference, and how occupational health practitioners can support staff in reaching their health goals.

While compliance with health and safety legislation is necessary, it’s no longer the main focus for employers when it comes to protecting their workers. Since the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 was introduced, the environments in which we work have changed significantly and stress, musculoskeletal disorders and boosting employee productivity are very much the focus today.

Part of this evolution involves looking after staff wellbeing. As Ellie Brown, HR and tech recruitment lead at Oodle Car Finance , explains: “Health and safety is all about mitigating risk. Health and wellbeing is more holistic and helps businesses get the best from their employees. A business that truly looks after its employees’ wellbeing benefits from reduced costs, but also higher employee commitment and productivity; the key challenges for businesses today.”

Occupational health (OH) practitioners can play a key part in improving staff wellness and productivity, as well as assisting their HR colleagues in making sure the most useful and suitable health and wellbeing benefits are on offer.

Benefits on offer

This growing focus on, and enthusiasm for, wellbeing is reflected in increasing employer investment in this area, with the Global Wellness Institute predicting that the workplace wellness industry will grow by 6.7% from 2017-2022.

Yet, at the same time, how organisations approach and deliver wellbeing at a day-to-day level can vary considerably. The CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work report, for example, has found that around 40% of employers have a specific wellbeing strategy, while nearly 60% prefer to act on an ad hoc basis, according to individual need.

Similarly, Aon’s Benefits and Trends Survey 2018 revealed a mix of health benefits on offer to staff, including: physical activity challenges and health and wellbeing apps (both 49%) and stress reduction techniques (41%). Furthermore, Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report also highlighted a range of programmes from diet and exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress management.

So, where does this leave employers in 2019? Brown argues that a flexible approach to working location and hours is now expected as standard, while the number of activities targeting mental health will continue to rise. The importance of stress management and sleep are also being recognised by employers, and employees are also becoming more prepared to disclose mental health challenges.

One progressive company is M&C Saatchi. “Boosting wellbeing makes for better work and attracts top candidates,” explains Becca-Jane Schofield, the company’s social media manager. “Our wellbeing network ‘Together’ supports company-wide health events, talks, workshops and more. Dedicated wellbeing rooms and ‘happy hours’ are in the pipeline.”

Helping HR boost staff wellbeing

So how can OH practitioners help their colleagues in HR put useful wellness policies and benefits in place, particularly as there is so much on offer?

The answer is very much dependent on the individual needs of staff and employers. The core of OH is looking at everyone as an individual, which should be adopted at a company level too. Likewise, different industries will require different approaches.

Brown, for example, believes that “OH professionals can act as a source of expertise, playing a key role in helping HR to educate managers in the business that moves away from a reactive relationship between occupational health and HR to a more fulfilling, proactive and valuable one”.

Understanding trends, the needs of employees and the organisation and how to explain the benefits of healthy workers to other areas of the business will all be good places for OH practitioners to start.

As Trevor Jennings, risk manager at Lloyds, adds: “Lloyds secured ‘excellent’ status in London’s Healthy Workplace Charter in 2015 by understanding the challenges employees face today and embracing wellbeing in the broadest sense.

“We take a preventative approach to physical and mental wellbeing and measure the results over time. We actively encourage use of the on-site wellbeing centre and have tracked a clear return on investment.”

As the Society of Occupational Medicine’s (SOM) 2017 report Occupational Health: the value proposition made clear: “The most important issue for employers to address isn’t whether or not health promotion programmes should be implemented, but rather how they should be designed, implemented and evaluated to achieve optimal results.”

Understanding trends, the needs of employees and the organisation and how to explain the benefits of healthy workers to other areas of the business will be a good place for OH practitioners to start.”

Within this, risk assessments and health surveillance will likely play a part; in both of which OH will need to play a key role. Likewise, ensuring people with health conditions and disabilities are not discriminated against in an organisation’s wellbeing policy will be important.

Ergonomics may be another area where employers can improve staff wellness. For example, standing desks can help those with musculoskeletal conditions, while improving access for disabled employees might help them feel more valued.

Empowerment

Part of the remit of OH should be to engage with and empower employees to take care of themselves through promoting activities and wellness programmes. For instance, pre-rehabilitation might be promoted to prevent any complaints becoming health problems. Some individuals might want to engage in pre-rehabilitation independently and there are many boutique operators, for example Third Space and Ten Health and Fitness in London, helping to bridge the gap between medicine and fitness with dedicated “prehab” fitness sessions.

“Employees themselves should also be educated on practical ways to manage their wellbeing which is where occupational health can really play a part,” says Brown.

Encouraging workers to take responsibility for their own health is crucial, as is removing any misconception among employees that OH is there to help the employer, not employees.

Making the business case

While OH professionals have a role to play in signposting the best solutions for an employer’s needs, it is unlikely that significant changes will be made without HR involvement.

For example, a Confederation of British Industry guide, Front of mind: Prioritising workplace health & wellbeing, has suggested that 71% of firms find taking practical action hard because they are not clear on what works and can’t see demonstrable benefits. For this reason, occupational health must demonstrate how health initiatives impact the metrics HR care about.

Deloitte’s 2018 trends report showed 61% of respondents believe wellbeing improves employee productivity and bottom-line business results, while 60% believe it improves employee retention. It also cited research showing that the costs of lost productivity are 2.3 times higher than medical and pharmacy costs. 

Encouraging workers to take responsibility for their own health is crucial, as is removing any misconception among employees that OH is there to help the employer, not employees.”

The SOM value proposition report, too, argues that physical activity programmes can reduce the prevalence of, and sickness absence attributable to, musculoskeletal disorders. However, it suggests that interventions such as education and stress management training are generally ineffective.

Tracking return on investment in terms of qualitative and quantitative improvements is equally as important. OH should therefore work with HR to understand the impact that wellbeing interventions have on more conventional metrics such as absence rates, as well as remind them about the indirect (for example saved recruitment fees via higher retention) and intangible effects (for example corporate image).

As Lloyd’s Trevor Jennings emphasises: “At Lloyd’s we have seen an increase in employees using our occupational health services, particularly the bi-annual health screening and the use of our Wellbeing Centre. There has been a good uptake of elevating desks, which has enabled employees to choose when to stand while working at their computers. There is clear scientific evidence showing the benefits of standing, which includes increased physical activity and a reduction of strain on the lower back.”

He says it is crucial that HR sees the business benefit of any health and wellbeing measures put forward by OH.

“Lloyd’s prides itself on employing gifted and talented people and our health and wellbeing strategy demonstrates that we really do care out our employees,” Jennings adds. “This has certainly helped to reduce our sickness absence and increase our retention rates, both of which are better than the national average. I also work closely with colleagues within HR to identify individuals who may require reasonable adjustments to their working environment in order to work more effectively.”

While there is of course no obligation on companies to help improve staff wellbeing, the benefits in terms of reduced sickness absence, engagement and improved productivity will significantly outweigh the costs.

Chris Pinner is founder of health and wellbeing consultancy Innerfit

References

‘Wellness Now a $4.2 Trillion Global Industry – with 12.8% Growth from 2015-2017’, Global Wellness Institute, October 2018, https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/press-room/press-releases/wellness-now-a-4-2-trillion-global-industry/

Health and well-being at work, CIPD and Simplyhealth, May 2018, https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/health-well-being-work

Occupational Health: the value proposition, Society of Occupational Medicine, May 2017, https://www.som.org.uk/sites/som.org.uk/files/Occupational_health_%20the_value_proposition.pdf

Aon Benefits and Trends Survey 2018, https://www.aon.com/unitedkingdom/insights/aon-benefits-and-trends-survey-2018.jsp

2018 Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends/2018/introduction.html

Front of Mind: prioritising workplace health and wellbeing, CBI, 2014, http://www.cbi.org.uk/front-of-mind/home.html

Chris Pinner

About Chris Pinner

Chris Pinner is founder of workplace wellbeing provider Innerfit
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