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Promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace can be a tricky task. Aside from getting staff to actually use their gym memberships, leaders are increasingly aware of the psychosocial risks encountered in the world of work. With an ageing population and continued economic uncertainty, real attention should be paid to establishing programmes which can help people across an organisation, from frontline employees to the most senior executives. 

According to a poll by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EASHW), over half of workers in Europe (51 per cent) believe that cases of work-related stress are common. In a separate piece of research conducted by the EASHW, it was estimated that the cost of work-related depression alone is €617 billion annually. This was made up of costs resulting from absenteeism, presenteeism, healthcare, social welfare and loss of productivity. 
The good news is that more companies are realising that a healthy, happier workforce should make for a better business. Tom Wright, Group Chief Executive for charity Age UK, says: “Wellbeing has such a big impact on staff satisfaction, absence, retention, participation, innovation and organisational agility… The costs of not managing wellbeing are substantive but never well articulated. It’s not just reduced productivity, it can also affect the outputs, such as the quality of service.”

John Lewis, Chief Operating Officer for communication services provider Airwave Solutions, makes a similar point: “There’s a whole range of business performance metrics that it can affect. For me, we’re a very customer-focused organisation and if you have individuals who aren’t on top of their game that can often be reflected in the customer relationship.”

A welcome development from companies is that mental health is now being discussed more openly. Maria da Cunha, Director of People and Legal at British Airways, comments: “A lot of people think about wellbeing in quite narrow, physical terms, but psychological wellbeing, to my mind, still remains largely untapped [and] is equally important… It needs to stop being a taboo because it has such a big influence on people’s performance.”

Each year at energy company E.ON UK, an area is selected for its health and environment planning and in 2014 the focus was mental health. Dave Newborough, HR Director, says: “We’re aware of a growing incidence of absence due to mental health and it was also highlighted in our diversity survey feedback with our people feeling it impacted their development opportunities.

“Senior executives have been running workshops on sites entitled 'Time to Talk', giving people the opportunity to talk about mental health challenges. Increasingly, we find face-to-face discussions about mental health are well received among our workforce, whereas not so long ago there was a stigma attached to discussing openly mental health and stress-related issues.” 

It shows how progress can be made. “As you can imagine, our ancestry is from engineering, power generation so safety is paramount in our culture,” says Dave. “But over time health has taken its place alongside it, rather than one being more important than the other.” 

Adam Hodges, CEO for amusement and games concern Playnation, says: "We’ve introduced employee schemes, such as social committees, relaxation and breakout areas in the office, flexible roles, and... benefits such as discounted holidays and gym membership… We also have an Employee Assistance Programme which is a helpline that employees can call about work or personal issues.” 

At British Airways, a wellbeing website or portal is due to be made available for employees. “It will help [them] take responsibility for their own wellbeing,” says Maria. “We can push messages out, and staff can do things like measure their health age [which is estimated through alcohol consumption, weight and other factors], or get nutrition advice. It’s also a place they can go to for advice. We’ve got about 80 people who volunteered to be wellbeing advisors.”

Back to basics

There is now greater emphasis on education for employees at all levels. Matt Stripe, Group HR director for food concern Nestlé UK and Ireland, explains that encouraging people to understand the benefits of a healthy lifestyle is important: “Wellness is about ownership, it starts with the individual… It starts with getting people to care about themselves.”

Tom from Age UK says: “If you look at some of the long-term conditions that people develop, such as Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure… the risk is raised by a lack of exercise and poor health. Those can be improved by encouraging people to exercise more and have a better diet.”

The onus is on companies to promote awareness, both as a duty of care to employees and, on a more strategic level, to gauge the impact on the business. Matt explains: “In 2014, 10 per cent of our employees developed a life-changing illness, while 2 per cent were diagnosed with cancer. That’s out of 9,000, so that’s 900 people battling a life-changing illness. It’s a frightening statistic.”

Aside from putting programmes in place and encouraging people to talk openly, line-management and leaders need to reinforce this messaging by setting the right example. “It has to start at the top of the organisation,” adds Matt. “If those at the top don’t behave as role models then nobody will believe that it’s important.”

Adam of Playnation agrees: “If you don’t lead an awareness of health and wellbeing from the board, executive board and senior management team, it will never get introduced across the business. The regional and area managers won’t necessarily believe in it and it won’t filter down.” 

While more needs to be done to help companies develop methodologies and approaches to gain a clearer view of the cost and impact of work-related stress and psychosocial issues, there are plenty of programmes that can be put in place to raise awareness of problems relating to physical and mental health. In some ways, it should be seen as part and parcel of managing enterprise risk.

As Dave says: “It’s one of those areas that we ignore at our peril… Wellbeing has to be a top table discussion and recognised in the context of overall organisational resilience.”

I hope to see you soon.



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