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Beating the sick note culture: Health and wellbeing in the workplace

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Health As sports centres prepare themselves for the January rush, organisations can also help look after the wellbeing of their staff and cut absenteeism rates to boot. Verity Gough asks the experts how HR can help maintain a happy and healthy workforce in 2009.


New year resolutions are all very well, but as Britain slides into recession, ensuring that staff are happy and healthy will pay dividends when it comes to maximising productivity. In fact, in the past year alone, a huge government push on wellness at work coupled with the growing realisation that health has a direct correlation with happiness and reduced levels of absenteeism is resulting in a record number of organisations offering wellness schemes to their employees.

According to the Business Action on Health Campaign by Business in the Community (BITC), the number of FTSE100 companies who are actively monitoring and reporting the progress on health and wellbeing initiatives has risen 16% in the past year, with further research indicating that the introduction of a multi-component health promotion programme can result in a 10.4% improvement in work performance and an annual return on investment of £6.19 for every £1 spent.

Prevention is better than cure

Statistics aside, as the new year begins, HR is in the perfect position to look at the health of its staff. “It’s particularly a good time for people to refocus on their goals,” says Michael de Groot, a wellness coach and founder of Staying Alive. “We have all done it, new year’s resolutions, joining the gym in January and giving it up in February, for example.”

“In the UK workplace we still have this focus on the ‘SAD’ principle, not ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, but ‘Still Addressing Disease’. We need to move upstream and prevent more.”

Dorian Dugmore, Adidas

He believes that before implementing any programmes, HR should have a system in place to monitor absenteeism and sickness. However, he advises organisations to factor in what he refers to as opportunity costs, which can be much higher than the annual average cost of £6.59 per employee for absenteeism as calculated by the government.

“If a sales person is off sick, they could have booked a contract for £1million, which, in the end, could potentially cause the company to lose orders and could lead to redundancies or the company going bankrupt. When you consider it like this, it’s a much higher cost,” he explains.

Wellness coach for Adidas and director of Wellness International, Dorian Dugmore, agrees. “To prevent problems is often more cost-effective than losing key people for long periods of time due to ill health,” he says. “Such problems can create hidden costs, for example bringing in temporary cover while still paying for an employee while they are absent. In the UK workplace we still have this focus on the ‘SAD’ principle, not ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, as so many people think, but ‘Still Addressing Disease’. We need to move upstream and prevent more.”

Dugmore suggests that HR begins by profiling its workforce, in terms of health behaviours, and by measuring the key numbers that convey risk in a preventative sense. “Adopting an approach that focuses on prevention rather than treatment is key,” he explains.

One simple wellness initiative he recommends is identifying and neutralising potential risks before they occur, such as offering staff flu vaccinations. “If flu is being flagged as a potential problem as it is right now, a company can look at strategies that can avoid the potential problem before it occurs.

“For example, they might introduce a company vaccination programme, especially for those more at risk, such as a sales force constantly interacting with many different people. It also helps to profile employees, encouraging them to book vaccinations with their own doctors, as well as raising their awareness of how the illness comes about, and how it can be avoided,” he says.

To this end, he suggests three important strands that HR can follow: Educative – what people should know to avoid illness/problems; profiling – to get a sense of where a workforce has needs and requirements; and action – taking practical steps to do something proactive to avoid a problem such as flu vaccinations.

It’s the little things that count

Absenteeism: the facts

  • Cost to the British economy of working age ill-health in terms of working days lost and worklessness is over £100bn each year

  • About 172 million working days lost in 2007 due to sickness absence

  • Absences that last over four weeks make up around 40% of days lost to absence

  • About 2.6% of working time lost to illness in 2007

  • 34 million days lost in 2007/08 to work-related illness

  • 2.6 million people on incapacity benefits in May 2008 (fallen from 2.77 million in 2004)

  • 5.9 million people in employment in Great Britain say that they have a long-standing health condition
  • Source: www.workingforhealth.gov.uk

    While well-publicised case studies, such as Transport For London’s five-year Health Improvement Plan, which aims to reduce lost working days due to back pain, stress, anxiety and depression, makes for impressive reading, not all companies have the luxury of a big budget. In fact, says HR and business consultant Jeff Grout, it’s the small gestures that cost very little which can have an immediate and lasting impact.

    “Certainly a huge cause of people feeling disaffected and going absent is a simple lack of a please, thank you or well done,” says Grout. “Rather than focusing on skills training, employers should look at management development so they in turn can build better relationships with their own staff to make them feel involved and appreciated.”

    Similarly, giving people more control over their working lives through practices like flexible working can also have a big impact on absenteeism rates. “In the last few years, companies have being forced into flexible working but now they are embracing it as a way of both attracting and retaining staff as well as cutting absenteeism,” he says.

    Another aspect to keeping the troops happy is avoiding what Grout refers to as ‘senseless economising’. “It’s about being not too draconian with the red pen. Cutting the little things like the breakfast cereals provided for staff or cutting the budget for conferences and travel will ultimately lead to a more demotivated workforce who will pull more sickies,” he reflects. Instead, he suggests HR reminds the board that they need to think about keeping people together so the conference becomes even more important and can be a way of motivating staff and generating new business. “It’s not rocket science – but it’s about seeing the bigger picture,” he enthuses.

    De Groot agrees: “If employers think giving staff facilities in January and February will result in a drastic improvement by March, April, May, then that is totally unrealistic – there is a lead time involved.”

    Charity starts at home

    The battle with absenteeism really isn’t rocket science. Giving people the tools to improve their own wellbeing and making them feel valued doesn’t have to cost the earth. “It’s a process of education so individuals will start to see that they are the only ones responsible for their own wellbeing,” says De Groot. “The company can start implementing programmes to help employees – and this can be anything from nutrition through to exercise, coaching, counselling, but it is not a quick fix,” he warns. “Simple things like providing gym facilities, or even just providing changing facilities and a shower on site so employees can go for a run or cycle to work can make a huge difference,” adds Grout.

    And the benefits are more far reaching than simply cutting the number of sick notes issued to HR; not only will you have a more informed workforce that have empowerment to take more responsibility for their own health, but also a healthier workforce.

    “Employees appreciate and value their employers far more for taking care of them and showing an interest in their health and wellbeing, and are also more productive because they are in good health,” says Dugmore. “The morale of employees working for a company that cares for its people is likely to be high, and the messages of health and wellness can also be transported to the families of employees, therefore benefitting life during and beyond work,” he says.

    So as 2009 begins, HR can buck the trend of the ill-fated gym membership, the exercise bike gathering dust and show employees that their health matters – after all, a healthy workforce is a happy one.

    Top tips for reducing absenteeism

  • Align your wellness goals with your business strategy

  • Create a supportive environment and culture focused on wellness

  • Offer incentives to encourage participation in wellness programmes and reward improvement

  • Use targeted and ongoing mass communication to engage employees

  • Establish evaluation and monitoring programmes to measure change, outcomes and financial impact.
  • Source: Harvey Thorneycroft, wellness and relationship management specialists.


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