Absence from work costs the UK economy approximately £13.2 billion a year, a fact recognized by the Department for Work and Pensions in its recent launch of a £4 million grant scheme for companies running initiatives to improve the health of their employees.
Some companies are already active in this area. Richard Berry, a director at waste management company Veolia, decided to set up a wellness centre at one of the company’s branches in South London.
‘It started as a space for staff to do their physiotherapy exercises,’ he says. Berry says back pain is a common complaint in his industry, so the centre was established to combat the problem of injured staff not doing their physiotherapy exercises at home. With a dedicated space to do their exercises and a trained physiotherapist on site, employees were able to get into the right routine, says Berry, who has since installed a gym in the space for other members of staff to work out.
‘The waste management sector is not typically associated with a healthy lifestyle. It tends to involve people getting up at four in the morning and going for a greasy fry-up at midday,’ Berry observes. ‘Since introducing the programmes, we’ve seen an improvement in our injury stats by about 20 per cent. The next move is to change the pattern of sickness. Already we’re seeing a dramatic improvement in health.’
Up and running
Berry now wants to roll out health programmes across all of the company’s 250 sites, and to implement schemes to improve diet and encourage staff to stop smoking. ‘The emphasis for companies is usually about getting people back to work faster when they’ve been sick, but we want to focus on getting the whole workforce better more quickly,’ he says. ‘This is about people being healthy, happy and proud of themselves.
And of course, the benefit to us is increased loyalty as well as reduced sickness levels.’
But it’s not just physical problems that are affecting the UK’s workforce. According to the Labour Force Survey, an estimated 442,000 employees believe that work-related stress is making them ill.
Chris Piper, director at catering business Artizian, recently saw his company win a national business award for staff health and wellbeing, partly due to its efforts in reducing workplace stress. ‘We provide outlets for talking about feelings of pressure,’ he says. ‘One of our chefs went through a period where he felt he couldn’t cope with the work, but we didn’t want to lose him. We did some counselling with him and realised that he was suffering from a fear of being left alone and of failure. By identifying the problem, we were then able to offer him the appropriate support.’
Talking problems through seems to be at the heart of Artizian’s human resources policy. The company’s not afraid to be touchy-feely either, even changing the job title of its HR manager to ‘minister of calm’.
‘The idea behind the title was to have someone who can spot potential problems within the workplace rather than react to them when they happen – identifying grievances before they turn into disciplinary matters,’ says Berry. ‘We also have “talk-talk” sessions, where managers sit down with staff over coffee to discuss the issues that are concerning them.’
Piper is a firm believer in the link between diet and stress, encouraging his staff to talk to the company’s nutritionist and providing a free meal allowance to all employees.
The whole picture
Alex Smith, founder of organic muesli company Alara Wholefoods, agrees that healthy eating improves staff performance. But Smith has taken this belief one step further. ‘We make lunch for everyone, which includes two portions of the five-a-day recommendation. It’s a quality hot meal and the team are also given the option of coming in and having a breakfast too,’ he says.
Smith has a distinctly holistic view when it comes to staff wellbeing. He has set aside land so that staff can relax by gardening and has been running a subsidised bicycle scheme for three years, whereby the company provides 25 per cent towards the cost of each bike. However, Smith believes that the mind is as important as the body.
‘Part of achieving a sense of wellbeing is through education, so we encourage employees to take up NVQs as part of their career development,’ he says. ‘Recently, people completed an NVQ and 14 more are about to start one.’
For Smith, the benefits to the company are evident: ‘Our profits were up 40 per cent at the end of our last financial year, and I absolutely believe our success is down to having an engaged workforce,’ he says.
Noel Duncan, director at health consultancy Fitness to Live, agrees that the wellbeing of staff affects a company’s performance, adding that the hidden cost of ill health is the impact it has on productivity: ‘Research suggests that for every health risk a member of staff is exposed to, such as smoking or high blood pressure, their productivity will decrease by around 2 to 4 per cent.’
Duncan advocates a health risk appraisal of all employees, so the company can tailor programmes around the high-risk areas, for example by starting a smoking cessation programme. In order to promote awareness, he also suggests staging a health day for staff, which could include having a dietician and masseurs on site. ‘The costs will vary but it could come to anything between £500 to £2,000,’ he says. But to create a real behaviour change, Duncan adds that these activities need to be backed up with longterm support programmes.
For Veolia’s Berry, the cost savings of such long-term initiatives became apparent when a member of staff, who had been signed off for over a year, returned to work within 13 weeks of coming in to use the centre.
‘To get that guy to come back, when we thought he’d never be able to, has already paid for the project – not just in a monetary sense, but in a moral one too,’ he says.