Workplace Health & Wellbeing: From Corporate Programmes to Rethinking Work

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Increasing concerns about how to keep an ageing population fit for work longer and with mental health issues on the rise, many companies in the US and Europe have established initiatives and strategies that aim to promote employee health and wellness. While this is welcomed, questions can be asked about the maturity of these programmes and the actual impact on the root causes of workplace health and wellbeing issues.

Research by the Global Wellness Institute, a non-profit organisation educating public and private sectors about preventative health and wellness, outlines the tangible business benefits of ensuring employee wellbeing. Companies taking action can expect around 20% higher profitability and productivity, as quality and safety incidents are reduced, employee absenteeism falls by up to 37% and turnover reduced by 26-65%.

Questions can be asked about the maturity of these programmes and the actual impact on the root causes of workplace health and wellbeing issues.

The Blueprint for Business Action on Health Literacy, an initiative by
CSR Europe and partners, also highlights the urgent need for addressing the rising challenges and the costs of inaction. Data for the European Union reveals 350 million working days lost annually to sickness and mental health disorders affecting 38% of Europeans, costing more than €450 billion annually.

The urgency of maintaining the fitness and health of our workforce into older age is evident, considering that globally 51.9% of workers aged under 65 are already suffering from chronic conditions, and this is estimated to cost $45 trillion in lost outputs between 2010 and 2030. With increasing retirement ages and at least 30 % of workers predicted to be aged 55–64 by 2030, not preventing ill health among older employees will become very costly.

In response to the clear business case for a ‘healthy and happy’ workforce, many companies have already developed new initiatives that address employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. Investments are estimated around $43bn by the Global Wellness Institute, and typically might offer health screening, free/discounted gym memberships, physical and mental health literacy and prevention programmes as well as flexible working arrangements and work environment designs aimed at promoting wellness.

For example, Dutch bank ING has the “wellbeing quotient” project running across 30 countries, focusing on nutrition, physical activity, sleep and relaxation. Over six months, the programme provides education, monitoring, and coaching from experts, including former Olympic athletes.

To tackle the growing prevalence of mental health disorders, the pharmaceutical company GSK launched an online course teaching mindfulness techniques for stress management, while Barclays’ launched the “This is Me” campaign to raise awareness about mental health.

Some companies, including Nestlé, and Unilever, have invested in specialists and put in place holistic health and wellbeing strategies and programmes, covering physical and mental health, nutrition, work-life balance and the workplace environment. Google has gone a step further, looking to develop cutting-edge approaches that improve employee wellbeing. Through its People & Innovation Lab (PiLab), the company has brought together top social scientists, HR and business leaders for discussion and research that informed the company approach, e.g. for incentivising healthy choices.

The development of corporate programmes to promote employee wellness is undoubtedly a positive step in the right direction. They are raising awareness about healthy lifestyles, helping employees access activities that will enhance their wellbeing, and they are even chipping away at taboos about mental health in the workplace and beyond. However, some experts and critics point out that most initiatives are yet to fundamentally tackle the aspects of corporate culture and work design which are at the root of physical and mental employee ill-health.

Most initiatives are yet to fundamentally tackle the aspects of corporate culture and work design which are at the root of physical and mental employee ill-health.

For instance, while our long working hours culture is cited as one of the causes leading to unhealthy lifestyles, employee anxiety and even burn out, the OECD’s Work-Life Balance Index reveals that one in eight people is still working beyond 50 hours per week. Some innovative companies are starting to experiment with reduced hours schedules. For example, the Australian financial advice firm Collins SBA, with a staff of 30, has implemented a five hour day for the summer months; and some large banks, including Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, are also looking to reduce working hours.

At the same time, recent research by London University, which examined a sample of 51,895 employees across 36 European countries, is calling for companies to focus on reducing work intensity rather than working hours. The study found that, comparatively to long working hours, ‘hard work’, characterised by aspects, including relentless pace, tight deadlines and high workloads, is having a more detrimental impact on employee wellbeing. The CIPD’s UK Working Lives Survey, chimes with this, as it highlights that employees not only feel overworked but also overwhelmed by work. More than a third of middle managers surveyed said they have more work than they can handle, and 28 % said this is impacting their mental health.

Opportunities for greater reach and impact on employee wellness through corporate initiatives are immense. Currently, they only reach roughly 9% of the global workforce, with provision concentrated in the US and Europe, catering for office-based settings, and predominantly taken up by female employees.

Companies looking to develop, mature or scale their approaches, do not necessarily need to make significant financial investments. A wealth of organisations and alliances provide ready-made tools and guidance to develop strategies and programmes, including the UN Global Compact’s Health is Everyone’s Business initiative, CSR Europe’s Healthy Lifestyles Project; and the UK ‘Time to Change’ campaign.

We must go beyond current provisions and fundamentally rethink how we design work and evaluate performance.

However, to address many of the causes at the heart of employee health and wellbeing issues, we must go beyond current provisions and fundamentally rethink how we design work and evaluate performance. Promoting reduced working hours and a work-life balance, is only going to succeed if employees can manage their workload in reasonable time and feel secure in their jobs. Ultimately, wellness programmes must never compensate for poor workplace and management practices.

About the author

Alexandra Brill
Alexandra Brill

Based in London, Alex is a Manager working with clients on sustainability strategy development, stakeholder engagement, and embedding sustainability into core business.

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