Unhealthy employees costing British firms in lost productivity

British employers are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year as staff take time off sick and underperform in the office.

British employers are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year as unhealthy staff take time off sick and underperform in the office as a result of ill-health (otherwise known as presenteeism).

This is equivalent to each worker losing more than an entire working month of productive time annually. When translated into monetary terms the combination of this absence and presenteeism is costing the UK economy £73 billion a year in lost productivity.

Research from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW), surveying more than 34,000 workers across all UK industries, explores the link between employee ill-health, (primarily driven by lifestyle factors such as smoking or poor nutrition), and short-term productivity loss.

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Unhealthy employees are less engaged

The findings identify not only that healthier employees tend to be more engaged and more productive, but when people make improvements to their health over time, this directly leads to significantly improved productivity.

The study, which was developed by VitalityHealth and is delivered in partnership with the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer, also shows many employees mistakenly believe they are healthy. The study measures health in terms of exposure to risk factors, which occur when an individual is outside the healthy range for a lifestyle factor such as exercise or diet, or a clinical factor, such as blood pressure or cholesterol.

The results shows that 68 per cent of respondents have at least two risk factors, while a third are suffering from three or more. Two thirds (63 per cent) of those with three or more risk factors believe their health to be good or very good, which makes them less likely to change their behaviour.

Vitality’s member data has shown that lifestyle behaviour change is most pronounced when people recognise the need for change, and are therefore motivated to do so.

Encouragingly, BHW data also shows that workplace wellness programmes can support employees to improve their health. Average time lost per employee due to absenteeism and presenteeism at the top 20 per cent ranked organisations in BHW was over a week less than for the bottom 20 per cent.

As companies increase their investment in health promotion, the proportion of employees in good or excellent health grows, while the costs to productivity associated with absenteeism and presenteeism decrease.

Shaun Subel, strategy director at VitalityHealth, says, ‘The findings of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace not only demonstrate the scale of the UK’s productivity challenge, but point to an exciting alternative in the ways employers can manage this problem.

Traditionally, we have seen that employers looking to boost the productivity of their business often focus on measures such as the automation of human tasks or process re-engineering to pursue efficiencies.

‘While these measures are important they have definite trade-offs in terms of cost, sustainability, and potentially being perceived negatively by employees. Health and wellbeing, on the other hand, is an area where this trade-off does not exist – while wellbeing interventions can be of relatively low cost compared to the alternatives, they deliver tangible improvements in employee engagement and productivity, and are typically viewed positively by employees. Together, these ultimately lead to improvements in a business’s bottom line.’

‘There are now a strong group of employers who recognise that societal trends have changed,’ says Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer.

‘They know that people are living and working with multiple risk factors attributable to modern life, and understand that organisations have great influence in setting shared values and behaviours – both positive and negative. Those employers enabling positive health choices and behaviour in the workplace are seeing real benefits as they reduce lost productivity and give themselves a competitive advantage.’

Further reading on unhealthy workers

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the Smallbusiness.co.uk and Growthbusiness.co.uk titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the Express.co.uk.

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Employee health