With 131 million days lost to sickness in the UK last year and the cost of absenteeism put at an astounding £15billion, no employer can afford to ignore the impact that poor health has on its business.
‘There’s no question that looking after employee wellbeing makes sound business sense,’ says Dr Jill Miller, CIPD’s Research Adviser and author of the 2013 Absence Management Report.
‘Wellbeing initiatives don’t just reduce sick days. They help to prevent illness, reducing costly long-term absence and help workers with health issues make a successful return to work. Ultimately, healthy employees will be more productive.’
So what’s making us sick?
Although the total number of sick days is at a record low, there has been a dramatic rise in absenteeism due to poor mental health. Stress, anxiety and depression accounted for more than 15 million lost work days last year – the single biggest cause of long-term absence.
‘In 2009, near the start of the recession, 21 per cent of organisations reported seeing a rise in mental health issues. By 2013 that had increased to 42 per cent,’ says Jill.
So why are we so stressed, anxious and depressed?Employees who have been off sick with stress cite three main reasons: rising workload (49%), management style (39%) and organisation change and restructuring (32%). Nearly a third (30%) said non-work relationships/family was the cause.
Jill is quick to point out that changing attitudes – thanks to awareness campaigns of health charities like Mind - mean that people are becoming more comfortable reporting mental health issues.
‘Sickness forms often say exhaustion or fatigue rather than a mental health issue. Although more people now feel comfortable to be honest and report depression or stress, there is still some stigma we need to work at eroding.’
What employers can do
Four-fifths of public sector organisations and half of the private sector are now taking steps to identify and reduce workplace stress. The vast majority offer counselling services, flexible working options/improved work–life balance and employee assistance programmes.
‘Managing workloads effectively is one of the most important things you can do to safeguard employees’ mental wellbeing,’ says Jill.
‘Managers need training in how to talk about mental health, which can be a difficult conversation to have. By promoting a culture of open communication and understanding, employees will feel able to discuss issues as soon as they arise. Making adjustments to workload or working patterns can be enough to prevent long-term sickness in some cases.’
This is backed up by evidence. Research by CIPD shows that training line managers to conduct effective return-to-work interviews and developing their capability to manage absence was most likely to have a positive impact on absence.
Encouraging better lifestyle choices
It’s not just mental health that’s a problem. Studies show that smoking, poor diet, excess alcohol and lack of exercise contribute to chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers. While lifestyle choices are ultimately the responsibility of the individual, employers can play a vital role in encouraging workers to make healthy changes.
For example, clinical trials company Quintiles runs regular employee “fit camps” with outdoor group exercise classes, on-site Pilates groups, massage sessions and weight management programmes. The US company, which has around 2,000 employees in the UK based in Reading, London and Scotland, also has a positive attitude towards home working.
Each year, the company awards employees up to £360 for being physically active. For example, they can claim for gym membership, provided they show they have attended at least four times a month, or for sports activities and classes such as football leagues, Pilates and dance. People who don’t work in the office can buy home gym equipment or a bicycle.
The company’s “Are you veggin’?” challenge saw employees record the amount of fruit and vegetables they ate online. Those who hit the target (two portions of fruit and three of vegetables a day, six days a week) received a gift card.
Adidas is another company with a positive attitude towards health. The company has a wellness centre with two gyms at its Stockport site and offers sports masseurs, nutritionists, personal trainers and physiotherapy services.
The company takes a proactive approach to preventing illness. Working with Wellness International, employees can take a wellness check. According to Tricia Kalloo, chief executive of Wellness International, they have picked up prostate cancers, colon cancers, cardiovascular disease — “and these were people who were completely asymptomatic.”
Other initiatives include healthy food promotions in the canteen and an on-site doctor’s surgery at the beginning of the week. Interestingly, the average sick day per year per employee at Adidas UK is 2.5. The industry average is six.
What if your budget doesn’t run to building a gym or you tried running a counselling service but the uptake was ridiculously low?
‘When companies complain that uptake of counselling services is low, I ask how they were promoted. You need to let employees know how to access them confidentially. Something as simple as putting posters up on toilet cubicle doors can make a difference,’ says Jill.
If getting budget is a challenge, Jill suggests targeting specific department needs.
‘For example, if a department has 10 people who have gone sick with stress, you have to look at why. If you’re able to implement an initiative such as counselling services or flexible working and measure its success, you can make a good case for funding across the company.
You don’t need to build an on-site gym or pay for an expensive outside company either.
‘Approach people in the company who already have talents, for example, a part-time receptionist who is also a trained yoga teacher who may be able to offer lunch time classes.
Simple things can be effective. Jill says: ‘I know a company that organised “walking lunch meetings”, where the venue was 25-minutes away and everyone walked there. Another gave employees pedometers and ran a contest to see who had taken the most steps.’
Don’t forget to ask what employees wants, adds Jill.
‘Suggest wellbeing initiatives and ask what employees would value most. Allow them to give feedback in small groups and confidentially and you might be surprised at what comes back.’
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