wellbeing in the workkplace

Mylo Kaye is an independent wellness coach and business strategist who is interested in using his training and experience to find new ways to promote wellness at work.

COVID-19 is ramping up employer understanding of the importance of employee health and wellbeing. And it’s pushing forward plans to focus on prevention rather than cure.

Engaged employers already understand why promoting employee wellness is important. But it’s also about the long game – we now know that any outlay for employee wellbeing pays dividends in the future. If employees are well in body and mind, feel supported and cared about by their employer and have assistance to improve their health, there will be fewer absences and a productivity increase.

The changing face of wellbeing in the workplace
Until around 40 years ago, most recognised causes of health problems in employees involved occupational illnesses and industrial accidents. But these have fallen by 75% since the 1980s and around 85% since the 1970s, thanks to changes in law and better safety measures.

Between 2018 and 2019, according to figures from the UK Health and Safety Executive, 147 employees and 92 members of the public lost their lives due to industrial accidents. This is, of course, too high, but within living memory it was normal for thousands to die every year. Since 2000, non-fatal injuries and accidents have fallen by roughly half.

Occupational illnesses that blighted employees up until the last quarter of the 20th century include lung diseases caused by dust or detritus. One of the major problems for the UK’s industrial sector was asbestos causing a specific kind of cancer in employees. This epidemic lasted longer than it should have but is now on its way out thanks to mass safety measures.

Just as industrial accidents and occupational illnesses have improved recently, there has also been great strides in providing better access for employees with disabilities. However, most of this success revolves around people with fixed disabilities, such as being wheelchair bound or those who benefit from part time hours. The opportunity facing employers in a year that has brought with it a global pandemic, is to actively use the workplace to enhance and improve their employees’ physical and mental health.

The impact of wellness on productivity and the bottom line

Even pre-COVID, UK productivity is decreasing year on year. Figures from 2019 show that employees are losing 38 productivity days every year through both absenteeism and presenteeism caused by ill health. Presenteeism is just as big a problem as absenteeism, with 55 minutes of every productive hour lost while employees are at work but unable to concentrate because of ill health, whether mental or physical.

In 2014, employees were losing the equivalent of 23 days, and the increase since then has been steady. The loss of productivity is generally higher among younger employees and lower income employees. There is, of course, a direct link between productivity at work and employee lifestyle choices. This is the opportunity for employers to take control of their employees wellbeing in an active way by presenting support and assistance at work to improve their overall physical and mental health.

Before we look at how, it’s worth considering the impact of mental health issues. We know that these have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, but the baseline even before this is disturbing. Here are some statistics on employee mental health from 2019.

  • Employees who earn less than £20,000 are more at risk of mental health problems. More than 16% of this category of employees report suffering from depression.
  • The risk is high in the £20,000 to £30,000 salary layer too, with more than 10% reporting symptoms of depression.
  • More than half of employees say they have become ill directly because of work stress.
  • Around the same number (51.1%) report some concern about financial issues.
  • More than a third of employees report sleeping less than the recommended average every night while more than 40% have issues with their sleep.
  • Almost 40% of employees report at least one chronic health problem.

Investing in a wellbeing programme now pays off long-term

It’s clear that any responsible employer should now be investing in wellbeing and actively assisting employees to live healthier lives. However, budgets are always tight at the best of times and in the middle of a seemingly unending pandemic, it can be difficult to see how to instigate a meaningful employee wellness programme.

But it is possible, with small changes and improved communication. For any businesses planning to either improve their existing wellness programme, or to launch one to help employees deal with the myriad pressures of today’s workplace, the best place to start with what’s already out there.

Don’t waste time and money trying to start from scratch. There are huge swathes of existing resources, interactive online tools, webinars, free information and support out there already. From health and safety information to health risk assessments and from free exercise programmes to nutritional advice, it’s there for the taking.

Employers should put together a comprehensive package of online self-help information that employees can use in their own time. Some management time upfront to tailor, select and arrange the resources to specific industry needs is well worth it – the benefits could be huge for employees and for the company’s bottom line.

We’re now looking at ways to head off absenteeism at the pass and ensure that presenteeism is kept to a minimum. Understanding, empathy and support is needed from employers, and this will encourage buy in and trust from their workforce. It’s about creating a positive circle of mutual respect and support.

Staying connected with employees at all times

In these socially distant times, many employers are continuing to work with a mixed work model with some of their workforce at home and some in the office. This makes regular, transparent communication even more important to ensure there is a feeling of teamwork and support.

It’s all too easy for a team member to feel unsure, ignored or under-appreciated in these times. When the pandemic finally passes, employers can facilitate meetups, outings, exercise groups and all kinds of group wellness plans. But until then, it’s about utilising technology to bring people closer together.

As part of this, employers should roll out mindfulness meditation programmes across their staff. Big brands like Deloitte and Nike have brought this into the workspace in order to help staff improve their energy levels, resilience and focus. Working life in the 21st century, whether in the office or via remote working, is filled with distractions. Simple mindfulness techniques and meditation exercises can boost the mental health of employees with very little outlay. For example, encourage employees to set aside three ten-minute sessions throughout the day of deep breathing.

Measuring the impact of employee wellness programmes

Whatever type of wellness programme a business chooses to instigate, its effects must be quantifiable. The measuring points include levels of absenteeism and sickness. Employees who are feeling healthier, both mentally and physically, will work more and take fewer days off. They’ll feel more resilient and able to cope with stress, secure in the knowledge they have employer support.

Staff retention rates will also improve. Employees who feel safe, protected and healthy while working are more likely to stay longer, reducing the need for recruiting and training, and so cutting costs.

As well as tracking bottom line figures such as absenteeism and recruitment, employers must also ensure that the wellness programmes are working with staff. By holding regular surveys and focus groups, the plan can be tweaked and adjusted to ensure it’s working as well as possible.