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Should HR managers care about employee health?

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The fourth article in her series exploring the findings of the five components of the Adecco Institute's 'Demographic Fitness Survey', [PDF] sees Donna Murphy discussing how much involvement HR professionals should have in health management at work.


Until now, managing an employee's personal health has been the concern of the employee and their health advisors, and mostly removed from the concerns of the workplace. Yet, a number of factors are changing that:

  • Our work is increasingly overlapping into our personal lives
  • As a population, we are ageing; the age of the average UK worker is now 39 years, up from 34 in 1971
  • Health issues are increasingly recognised as having a measurable impact on productivity and profitability

"The shift to the 'knowledge economy', where more jobs are sedentary… is resulting in more people dealing with weight issues."

According to a report produced by the mental health charity Mind, workplace stress issues cost the economy 10% of the UK's Gross National Product, yet fewer than 10% of companies have official policy to tackle it. 12.8 million working days a year are now lost to work-related stress alone, with 58% of workers complaining of job stress.

The shift to the 'knowledge economy', where more jobs are sedentary and fewer and fewer people are active during the workday, is resulting in more people dealing with weight issues. In 1980, only 6% of men and 8% of women were obese (having a body mass index of more than 30 kg/m2); by 1998, the figures had almost trebled to 17% of men and 21% of women. Today, about 46% of men and 32% of women are overweight and an additional 17% of men and 21% of women are obese.

Stress, obesity, ageing, and all the attendant health issues that accompany these conditions mean employees are increasingly at risk for poor health, and employers are increasingly bearing the burden of that ill health. The most obvious impact of poor employee health is sick days, but ill health also impacts productivity, motivation, concentration, and attitude. All of these impact on an employee's ability to perform in the workplace.

The Adecco Institute Demographic Fitness Survey surveyed UK employers to determine what they are doing to help address employee health issues (see graph below). While 63% of employers offer medical checkups at work, only 9% are offering dietary advice. Healthy catering is being addressed by 32% of companies, but only 6% are actively offering relaxation programmes, mirroring the results of the Mind report – programmes that can be valuable tools in handling stress are largely unavailable in the workplace, despite skyrocketing rates of stress, obesity, and other early-warning health indicators.

Consequently, health management is emerging on the list of concerns of HR practitioners. Workplace health and safety has long been on the HR agenda; how does health management differ? Workplace health and safety focuses on keeping employees safe on the job – health management focuses on keeping employees healthy, with the goal of improving productivity, motivation, and extending employees' potential working life by addressing health concerns before they become health problems. The goal of health management is to promote healthy habits for all employees.

Employees are demonstrating an eagerness to embrace health management tools – according to the Adecco Institute survey, 57% of employees report that they use the health programmes that are available at their place of work, yet the offerings beyond health checkups are limited.

Worrying about the health of our employees is becoming as important as worrying about their skill sets. HR professionals can gain an edge by identifying, evaluating and implementing programmes that help employees address their health issues. As with every good programme, the first step is to develop an assessment of what programmes would be most valued and used by your employee base – determine whether there is interest in weight loss programmes, smoking cessation, exercise programmes, stress reduction, or other programmes that may not be on the 'top ten' list.

"Worrying about the health of our employees is becoming as important as worrying about their skill sets."

When looking for appropriate programmes to implement, look at a wide variety of options. Bringing trainers into the workplace may be appropriate in some cases; in others, developing partnerships (e.g. with the local gym) is a more practical approach. Regardless of size or location, employers have a wide range of options for promoting healthy habits. Innovative thinking will not only enhance interest in your programmes, but extend their reach.

Working in a small office? Promote a lunchtime walking programme. Lack facilities to provide healthy catering? Start a programme offering ideas on healthy lunches on a daily/weekly basis. Lack time in the office? Start a programme where people can track the physical activity that they engage in outside the office. The key is to be innovative, inclusive, and focused on promoting the benefits of your programmes.

Large or small, all companies will reap the benefits of the investments they make in developing healthy practices in their employees. Quantifiable benefits will include fewer sick days, but intangible benefits will include a more engaged, attuned, and focused workforce. Equally importantly, people who develop healthy habits early in their careers are likely to continue those habits, increasing their ability to productively contribute to the workforce for longer periods, uninterrupted by unanticipated health issues.

Previous articles
Do you know where your knowledge is?
Lifelong learning: Jump on the bandwagon
Career management: A strategic tool

Donna Murphy is managing director of the Adecco Institute. For more information, please email her at [email protected].

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