Occupational health can have different connotations. While broadly as a field it relates to both the prevention of workplace hazards and the management of employee health, there can often be a stark contrast between the level of support and investment in these two areas.
In a society where the burden of disease is increasingly driven by unhealthy lifestyles, the role of employers can often be underestimated in terms of influencing the health of the workforce, and the economy as a whole.
Investment in employee health and wellbeing is often seen as being of secondary importance, with key drivers being the ubiquity of the NHS, and the fact that healthy lifestyle changes take time to manifest in better health outcomes.
These have driven a perception that UK employers are not themselves directly exposed to the costs of ill health, and that in an environment of high employee turnover, long-term return on investment is of limited relevance.
To an extent, evidence has traditionally been lacking in terms of quantifying the effects of employees’ poor lifestyle choices on business critical outcomes, such as work engagement and short-term productivity. Governance is another area where definitive guidance has been lacking; one only has to look at the contrasting levels of legislation on health and safety protocols as opposed to wellness in the workplace – with even the most progressive frameworks such as the International Integrated Reporting Council still focusing primarily on traditional health and safety indicators – to see this divide.
Although the increasing prevalence of lifestyle-related disease in modern societies, and the strain this places on public health services, is something which has been well-documented, in many ways this changing landscape has not yet translated into concrete actions on the part of employers. Poor habits, many of which are directly related to the workplace environment, such as increasingly sedentary lifestyles, arguably now pose more of a problem for employers and policy-makers than traditional health and safety issues.
This landscape was the genesis of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, a study of workplace health which aimed to contribute to the evidence base of how modifiable health risks impact upon an employee’s short-term productivity. It also aimed to develop a common understanding of what employee health and wellbeing means for employers and to establish a common set of standards that can be applied across different industries and types of organisation.
The study’s approach comprises an annual audit of the workplace and employee health through dual employer and employee-facing surveys. The employer survey seeks to understand how the organisation is creating a culture of health, and encouraging employees to adopt healthy lifestyles.The employee survey focuses on what risks individuals are exposed to, how these impact upon performance, and how these change over time. Importantly, the study has identified a tangible link between lifestyle health and short-term productivity outcomes through employee absenteeism and presenteeism, underlining the integral importance of healthy and engaged employees to a business’ performance.
Since inception in 2013, over 400 organisations and 100,000 individuals from a wide range of industries, regions and demographic groups have taken part, making Britain’s Healthiest Workplace one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of workplace health, and allowing relevant benchmarking for organisations against a cross-section of UK employers.
The study’s appeal is demonstrated by high levels of repeat participation at both an employer and employee level. This also allows results to be tracked over time, to understand how employers can encourage engagement and participation in workplace wellness initiatives, and how increased engagement can lead to improved health and productivity outcomes.
The results of the study clearly show that more needs to be done in the sphere of workplace health. With absenteeism and presenteeism due to ill health costing the UK economy an estimated £73 billion each year in lost productivity – an organisation can expect the average employee to lose the equivalent of 27 working days per year due to this sub-optimal productivity – this is an issue that employers cannot afford to ignore.
Register for the Britain's Healthiest Workplace scheme here
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