Encouraging better health is not just good for individual employees, it also makes them – and their organisations – more productive, research has suggested. But, argues Dr Wolfgang Seidl, there is still a big barrier that often needs to be overcome first: employees themselves
The lack of productivity across the UK continues to confound economists, with recent figures showing that a 0.9% boost didn’t amount to an actual increase, because it was only due to people working fewer hours.
The upshot is that, by Thursday afternoon our major competitors, the US, France and Germany, have already generated as much as it takes British workers the entire week to produce. The question therefore is “why?”.
About the author
Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner and workplace health consulting leader for Mercer
While economists continue to ponder the impact of skills shortages, poor infrastructure and weak business investment in technology, research carried out by the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace index (of which Mercer is a part, ch) shows employers could be reducing the average number of unproductive days by a third – simply by boosting the health of their workforce.
This discovery was made when researchers set about analysing the wellbeing habits of 31,950 individuals from across 167 organisations – to calculate what it called a “vitality age” that would reflect the impact on the employee’s mental wellbeing, lifestyle choices and biometric factors on their actual age.
Understanding ‘vitality age’
A very healthy individual could end up with a vitality age that is less than their actual age. But most of those taking part in the study attained a vitality age greater than their chronological age. For example, a 40-year-old smoker who doesn’t exercise much might end up with a vitality age of 44 years.
What is fascinating is that the vitality age gap (the difference between a person’s vitality age and their actual age) is not only indicative of that person’s health, but also their productivity.
On average, the organisations surveyed had an average vitality age gap of four years and two months. The survey also uncovered 30.4 days of unproductive time on average per person a year.
However, the healthiest workplaces not only had a greatly reduced vitality age gap (of just one year and nine months) but the average unproductive time per person was also a third less, at 19.8 days. That’s 10.6 days less per person a year.
For a large organisation employing 10,000 people that’s a productivity gain amounting to 106,000 working days a year, or equivalent to employing another 473 people*. For an organisation employing 100 people, it’s equivalent to enjoying the productive output of another 4.7 employees.
What’s more, this saving isn’t just about reducing sickness-related absence. It also takes into account the positive impact of reducing presenteeism (when people are in work but struggle to perform). It means that, arguably, reducing the vitality age gap of your workforce can be a key driver of improved productivity.
Productivity puzzle solved?
Clearly, there are huge productivity gains to be made by helping people to make healthy changes to their lifestyle, before they even become diagnosed with any chronic diseases. Unfortunately, the willingness of people to change is variable.
According to last year’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, 22% of people at risk of having an unhealthy BMI had no desire to change and 31% of those at risk of not exercising enough didn’t want to change.
A shocking 94% of the third of people found to be exceeding government guidelines on alcohol had no motivation to change. More than half (56%) were happy with the amount they drank while a further 38% recognised they should drink less, but had no intention of doing so.
The reason is that until they are diagnosed with a chronic disease, most people will consider themselves to be “healthy “and are unaware of the cumulative nature of ill health, let alone its impact on their productivity.
This reluctance to make health changes until confronted with an actual disease means that 850,000 people in the UK have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes in part because of poor nutrition and inactivity. Properly treated, there is no reason why someone with diabetes cannot perform as well as anybody else. But undiagnosed type 2 diabetes sufferers can experience fatigue and headaches, which will impact negatively on their ability to perform.
Making wellbeing personal
How should employers therefore be responding to this? Employers seeking to boost health, both for the benefit of the individual but also as a means of boosting productivity and competitiveness, must take on the challenge of educating people about the cumulative nature of unhealthy lifestyle choices and impact of hidden health risks.
For example, if people who travel a lot for work feel forced into making unhealthy eating decisions, providing them with extra motivation, support and advice on how to make a healthy packed lunch will be far more valuable than a generic workshop on nutrition. We all know we’re meant to be eating healthy grains, fruit and vegetables instead of fatty and sugary foods, but what are the obstacles preventing people from making healthy choices?
By getting under the skin of the organisation to identify and address the ways in which people are putting their health at risk, employers can not only boost the health of their workforce, but also reduce the number of unproductive days by up to a third.
* Assumes each new person works a five-day week and has 28 days of statutory paid holiday and six bank holidays and two public holidays a year. This generates 5 x 52-(28+8) = 260 – 36 = 224 working days per person. Dividing the 106,000 extra days by this gives 473.2 extra employees.
Labour productivity, UK: October to December 2017, ONS, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/bulletins/labourproductivity/octobertodecember2017
The impact of health on productivity cannot be ignored, Mercer, March 2018, https://www.uk.mercer.com/our-thinking/productivitygap.html
‘850,000 people in the UK could have diabetes without knowing it’, Diabetes UK 2012, https://www.diabetes.co.uk/news/2012/Jun/850,000-people-in-the-uk-could-have-diabetes-without-knowing-it-95046575.html