Over the past 40 years there have been major advances in safety at work, leading to significant reductions in fatal and major accidents. Most employers recognise that accidents are expensive. Awareness of work-related health issues, such as noise-induced hearing loss, manual handling and respiratory complaints has improved in recent years.
However, whilst the HSE estimate that over 30 million working days are lost each year due to work‑related ill-health and injuries, the UK workforce take more than another 100 million working days sick leave each year for other reasons. In total, sick pay and other costs (such as covering absences) is estimated to cost organisations around £9 billion. On top of this, the cost of presenteeism (where people come into work, despite being unwell) is estimated to cost another £29 billion.
For employers, there is therefore a cost benefit in helping employees to be healthier, not just in relation to work place hazards, but considering their whole lifestyle. Healthier, happier employers are more productive, take less sick leave, and are more likely to stay with you if they believe their work contributes to their wellbeing. There is a growing belief that where managers show their commitment to wellbeing programmes, workers become more engaged in traditional health and safety. The Thames Tideway Tunnel project team, for example, believe that working to improve the health of their workers is a key tool to meet their target of zero fatalities. If you get wellbeing right, it can be a positive driver for your safety culture.
However, some organisations that have invested in wellbeing programmes have been disappointed in the results. Willis Tower Watson asked over 30,000 people across the world, including over 3,500 in the UK and Ireland, about workplace wellbeing programmes. The survey found that employers and employees had very different views about the benefits. For example, whilst 38% of UK employers believed that company wellbeing programmes encouraged employees to have a healthier lifestyle, only 23% of employees agreed. In the UK, 7 out of 10 employees asked were dissatisfied with their employers’ wellbeing programmes. In the USA, where wellbeing programmes have been around for longer (often driven by the financial need to drive down health insurance premiums that employers pay for their staff) the news is no better – satisfaction in wellbeing programmes dropped from 4 out of 10 in a 2011 survey, to just 3 out of 10 in 2017.
So where are employers going wrong? It turns out that providing yoga, free fruit and pyjama days might make people happier in the short term, but if that’s all you do to tackle wellbeing it’s the equivalent of giving every worker the same general-purpose goggles and gardening gloves without considering the substances they are exposed to.
Just as a great health and safety programme must focus on engagement, so any new wellbeing programme has to start by finding out what people need. If people are worried about paying the mortgage, meeting childcare costs or looking after a sick parent, providing a discount on gym membership is not going to help. Do staff need financial advice, child care vouchers or flexible working arrangements before they can think about taking up your other offers?
Five steps to help make your investment in wellbeing more engaging and productive: