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How healthy is your workplace?

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Health and wellbeing

Simon Jones, acting CEO of Investors in People (UK), looks at the issue of wellbeing in the workplace and questions what a ‘healthy working environment’ really means and whether it is the employer’s or employee’s responsibility.


In workplaces across the country, the question of how to manage and develop employees more effectively is a serious subject for debate. Against the backdrop of the government’s campaign to ‘up-skill’ the UK in a bid to boost productivity and competitiveness, we are seeing organisations taking a far more proactive approach to getting the best out of their people.

For some time now, enlightened employers have recognised the vital role that their people can play in ensuring the success of the organisation. The importance of recruiting and retaining the best people is widely appreciated, as is the need for comprehensive training and development programmes that enable employees to acquire new skills and evolve within their roles.

Increasingly, however, we are also seeing a broader discussion, not just about skills, but about health and wellbeing at work. High profile media coverage of public health issues, such as the rise in obesity, has led to growing debate over an employer’s role in creating a healthy working environment. But what does this really mean and is it really the responsibility of employers?

A healthy workforce equals a productive workforce

Managing ‘health and wellbeing’ in the workplace is, on the face of it, a matter of self-interest for employers. Common sense tells us that a healthy workforce is more likely to be a productive one, whilst reducing sickness days – which, according to the CBI, cost UK business 175 million days, or £13.4 billion, in 2006 – will clearly deliver bottom-line benefits.

“Common sense tells us that a healthy workforce is more likely to be a productive one, whilst reducing sickness days will clearly deliver bottom-line benefits.”

Furthermore, according to recent research from Ipsos MORI, conducted on behalf of Investors in People, both employers and employees see the benefits that healthy working can deliver. Nearly half of all those questioned (45 per cent) felt that if their organisation took steps which had a positive impact on their personal heath and wellbeing at work, it would improve their job satisfaction, whilst 37 per cent felt that it would boost their motivation and 31 per cent said it would improve their productivity and performance.

Yet in spite of the potential benefits, it seems many employers have been slow to respond. According to the same research, many employers plead ignorance about how to improve the health and wellbeing of their workforce. Nearly a quarter said their organisation does not take action because they simply don’t understand how best to help, whilst nearly one in five said it would be too expensive. Almost a third equated ‘healthy working’ to eating healthily at work.

The research highlights the confusion and contradictions that currently undermine the concept of ‘health and wellbeing’ at work. Many employers seem disorientated by the debate, unsure of what it means to them and therefore unclear on what they could or should be doing to promote a healthier workplace (and workforce).

Clearly, there is a requirement for greater explanation so employers can grasp and respond to the issue in ways that protect their own productivity whilst improving the working experiences of their employees.

Swapping biscuits for bananas

The first step in understanding the issue – and therefore the opportunity for employers – is to realise that improving ‘health and wellbeing’ at work is about more than swapping biscuits for bananas.

Our research found that when employees were asked what measures would have the greatest impact on improving health and wellbeing at work, they actually asked for more effective day-to-day support from managers, flexible working, support with workload management and appropriate channels for raising concerns.

“A healthy workplace essentially relies on creating a culture that supports employees’ mental, physical and environmental well-being, on a sustainable basis, for all concerned.”

This reinforces my belief that a healthy workplace essentially relies on creating a culture that supports employees’ mental, physical and environmental well-being, on a sustainable basis, for all concerned.

Initially that may sound a little abstract but actually it is both fundamental and practical. It is about articulating the organisation’s commitment to helping employees give their best and demonstrating that commitment through every facet of the way it does things, from job design and management processes to employee communication and benefit packages. It means turning a philosophy into both policy and practice.

Supporting ‘health and wellbeing’ at work should be a ‘win-win’ for employers; it can ensure employees are more able to give their best whilst enhancing productivity and reducing sickness absence. But it’s important that employers take a holistic view of the issue so they can review all relevant areas and ensure they have a proactive strategy in place. This will benefit employers, employees and the nation as a whole.

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