With two-thirds of employees saying wellbeing support makes them less likely to want to work elsewhere, wellbeing strategies need to go beyond simply reducing sickness absence. OH must also start proactively driving business priorities, ranging from employee loyalty to diversity and inclusion, says Louise Abbs.
The recurrent theme to emerge from research carried out for this year’s Health at Work Report by PAM Wellbeing is that employees want help to stay healthy. Almost nine out of ten (88%) employees believe their employer has responsibility for their health and wellbeing, with help to sustain a good work-life balance providing twice as popular as more curative solutions, such as paid-for healthcare benefits.
Unfortunately, current working practices are making people ill, with two-fifths of employees (39%) saying working for their employer undermined their health or made them sick. Two-thirds (64%) have experienced fatigue and burnout and a similar number (63%) have been affected by workplace stress.
Add to that the impact of changing working practices, which have contributed to one in ten (11%) experiencing a chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) issue, and it’s unsurprising that the right wellbeing support can make employees more loyal. With two-thirds (64%) of employees saying wellbeing support makes them less likely to want to work elsewhere.
Culture of health
All of which means creating a culture of health has never been more important. Not only for reducing sickness leave but helping to attract and retain talent and drive productivity and engagement. The problem is that traditional approaches to health and wellbeing have been biased towards supporting people once they become sick, instead of proactively helping them to stay healthy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to mental health issues, which remain the biggest concern undermining employee wellbeing. One in four (25%) employees have been diagnosed with clinical anxiety or depression, with two fifths (41%) of employees worrying about their emotional health in their everyday lives.
On no level is this acceptable. Not least because most mental health issues, such as stress and anxiety, can be nipped in the bud with the right upfront support, but can spiral into something much worse if left untreated. Employees are crying out for a proactive approach, yet one in three (29%) people are only given access to wellbeing support once they become sick and one in ten (13%) find help difficult to access.
Instead, employees want employers to embrace the digital revolution, with two-fifths (42%) of employees saying they see mental health apps, powered by artificial intelligence, that provide training on how to reduce anxiety and depression as valuable. A third of employees (36%) value tools to address addiction and substance abuse, while a similar number (35%) would be happy to have a virtual physiotherapy session. More than one in three (36%) value wellbeing advice based on genetic data.
This is exciting news, allowing employers to develop proactive wellbeing strategies based on emerging science, such as ‘microgenetics’, which helps employees reduce health risks by looking at the impact of their behavior on their own DNA. However, before looking at strategies to do this, health and wellbeing professionals must first find better ways of aligning their strategies to what people actually need.
Long Covid and NHS backlog
Long gone are the days of devising a static annual wellbeing strategy, or conducting an annual wellbeing survey, when issues such as long Covid and the impact of the NHS backlog are starting to hurt employees, and organisations, now.
Data-driven strategies are becoming increasingly important, with insights gained not only from absence data, but six-weekly pulse surveys, exit interview data, employee focus groups, employee assistance programme (EAP) usage data and health assessment data.
All of this can reveal useful lifestyle and biometric data on the risk of employees developing non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular heart disease. Which are increasing in prevalence but even less likely to be detected due to delays accessing NHS screening services.
With limited budgets in place, creating a wellbeing strategy fit for the future isn’t just about responding to what employees actually need, but also examining how different areas of wellbeing are impacting on the business strategy.
With limited budgets in place, creating a wellbeing strategy fit for the future isn’t just about responding to what employees actually need, but also examining how different areas of wellbeing are impacting on the business strategy.”
For example, if stress and poor work-life balance aren’t causing sickness, but are causing people to leave the business, how much is this costing in terms of recruitment, training and reputation? Similarly, if the huge numbers of people now working from home are developing MSK issues, does the cost of helping them to set up an ergonomic home office outweigh the cost of not doing this in terms of injury and lost productivity?
Furthermore, which individuals are being most impacted by which issues and what does this say about your wider diversity and inclusion agenda? The Health at Work Report shows that younger workers are the least likely to feel that they are being given proactive help to stay healthy, despite being the most likely to develop long Covid or clinical anxiety or depression.
Black employees were the most likely to be struggling with loss and bereavement and frontline workers had the least access to healthcare support, despite being the most in need of this.
Health and wellbeing benefits that are only promoted to, or utilised by, certain groups, will make others feel less supported and could also make them want to leave for a more inclusive employer. So, with employee loyalty the new measuring stick for ESG, it’s essential to put a broad range of solutions in place, which cover a diverse range of needs, instead of opting for the solutions that will benefit the most people.
All of this means that health and wellbeing professionals must not only be prepared to gather and review their data, but also act on it, by drawing up plans that identify immediate and longer-term priorities, including preventative priorities which cost the least to rectify with behavior change, but often deliver the biggest returns.
This is the first article in a series of three. Louise’s second article will examine how employers can work in better partnership with their OH providers to deliver more effective outcomes.