Active steps to a healthier workforce

Health and wellbeing programmes are fast becoming a must-have for forward-looking employers. Sam Barrett sees bosses looking to get staff active

Once thought of as a bit of a fad promoted by ‘gym bunny’ HR managers, workplace health and wellbeing programmes have more than demonstrated their ability to drive business benefits.

As well as helping to engage employees and increase productivity, a well-structured programme can reduce the costs of absence, medical insurance and group risk.

“Great companies need great people,” says VitalityHealth director of corporate and intermediated business Greg Levine. “And to be really effective, they need to be healthy.”

Taking steps to look after employees’ health is increasingly regarded as part of a responsible employer’s duties. For example, recent research by Westfield Health, entitled ‘The employer view – investing in employee health and wellbeing in the workplace’, found that 88 per cent of employers believe the health and wellbeing of their workforce is strategically important and core to their business.

Additionally, 79 per cent of employees thought the responsibility for managing employee health and wellbeing should be shared between the employee and employer.

“Employers should help improve the health of their workforce,” says Westfield Health sales and marketing director Paul Shires. “It’s good business sense and it’s something that more and more employees expect.”

A number of changes in the employment market will make it even more important for employers to prioritise health and wellbeing.

Levine says: “Advances in medicine coupled with trends in ageing mean we’re all likely to live longer, which will also mean working longer to fund our retirement. To enable us to do this, as well as staff looking after their own health, employers will need to be more focused on this to ensure their workforces remain healthy and productive.”  

Trends in health & wellbeing

Which health and wellbeing initiatives will be most effective depends on the nature of the workforce – and the results an employer wants to achieve – but it is also worth checking out some of the latest research in this area. This can help to keep a programme fresh and, with the research often driving press commentary, can provide plenty of hooks for workplace campaigns.

According to Vielife solutions director Jessica Silva, physical activity is one of the biggest subjects of research. For example, the American Journal of Clinical Exercise earlier this year published research led by Professor Ulf Ekelund of the UK’s University of Cambridge on the link between physical inactivity and premature death.

The study, which was conducted with more than 334,000 adults participating in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, found that twice as many deaths were attributable to lack of physical activity than to obesity.

Silva says: “This really supports the idea of introducing more activity into the workplace. Even if someone is overweight, as long as they are active it’s better than being an inactive person of normal weight.”

The study also showed that the amount of physical activity required to make a difference was relatively small, with the authors estimating that a brisk 20-minute walk once a day was sufficient to reduce the risk of premature death by between 16 and 30 per cent.

Silva adds that other studies have highlighted further benefits of injecting a little more exercise into a workforce.

She says: “A 2014 study by Stanford University [‘Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking’] found that walking increased 81 per cent of participants’ creativity, with walking outside found to deliver the best results.”

Further evidence can be found in a US study from 2011, entitled ‘Reducing occupational sitting time and improving worker health: The take-a-stand project’, which encouraged employees in sedentary roles to spend 66 minutes of each day standing at their desk rather than sitting. This resulted in an improved mood and reduced upper back and neck pain by 54 per cent.

“Getting employees more active can have a major impact on the workplace and it’s relatively simple to do this,” adds Silva.


Good programme design

While physical activity may be causing the latest buzz in the health and wellbeing space, the structure of a programme also plays an important part in its success.

“There may be common health themes but no two organisations are the same in terms of their wellbeing priorities,” says Buck Consultants senior consultant Chris Evans.

“A bespoke solution is much more effective than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.”

One way to achieve this is to take into account the profile of the workforce. Shires recommends mining new or existing information on employees’ health to determine which initiatives will be most successful.

Other sources of company information provide an insight into employee health and wellbeing, such as absence records and claims data from group risk and medical insurance schemes.

Shires says: “An employer could use an online health risk assessment to get a snapshot of employees’ health. This can help them identify areas where improvements may need to be made as this will deliver the most benefit.”

It is possible to buy a health risk assessment on a stand-alone basis and they are often included within other health insurance products. For example, Westfield Health includes one with its corporate schemes and Vitality Life has a calculator that assesses risk factors to produce a ‘health age’ that can be compared to the employee’s actual age.

  It can also be useful to consult employees on their views about health and wellbeing programmes.

“Don’t just chuck a load of health and wellbeing initiatives at employees and hope they’ll work,” says Jelf Group director Matthew Judge.

“If there’s no engagement, there’s no point in doing anything. Ask them what they want as this will help to drive interest and engagement.”

Management buy-in

As well as getting employee support, effective health and wellbeing programmes need management buy-in.

“People like to fit in and will follow their leaders,” says PMI Health Group compliance director Mike Blake.

“You need to be sure any programme can be led from the top as this will set a good example throughout the workplace.”

Employee engagement can also be influenced by the format of a programme. For this, Levine recommends creating a clear roadmap and outlining goals and how they may be achieved.

“An employer needs an integrated programme rather than a one-off gimmick,” he says. “It can include different initiatives and tools to engage employees but it needs a common theme to ensure sustained effort.”

It is important that programme goals are achievable. Judge says: “You need initiatives with measurable goals, especially if you have to justify expenditure to your finance director.

“Absence is often a key measure so work out how much an average day’s absence costs the organisation and then track the level of absence over at least a six- to nine-month period.”

However, some wellbeing goals are much more long-term, such as reducing the risk of diabetes, cancer or heart disease. In these instances, Judge recommends breaking down the objective into more measurable chunks, such as a loss of weight, improved engagement or less absence.

“Look for lots of little gains,” he adds.

“No one expects to see the health status of a workforce change overnight but, if an organisation
can make healthy habits part of its employees’ lives, it will reap significant benefits.”

More bang for your buck: keeping health and wellbeing low-cost

Implementing an employee health and wellbeing strategy can cost a small fortune, buying in everything from wearable technology and health screenings to personal trainers and mindfulness sessions. But where budgets are tight, some impressive results can still be achieved. 

For example, to boost employees’ physical activity, Westfield Health’s Paul Shires suggests investing in simple pedometers. These cost only a few pounds each and can help to engage employees.

“Run a steps challenge, pitching employees or teams against each other,” he adds. “It’ll create a buzz in the workplace but will also help to improve health and change behaviours.”  

Injecting more physical activity into the workplace can even be achieved at no cost. Vielife’s Jessica Silva says her firm has ditched traditional sit-down meetings in favour of standing and walking meetings.

She says: “Whether this is feasible will depend on your workplace but it can be really energising to do this and it definitely gets things done more quickly.”

She suggests drawing maps of the local area around the workplace with routes that take different lengths of time so that employees can pick one to match the expected length of the meeting.

Employers’ existing benefit schemes are another good source of low-cost health and wellbeing interventions. Many products include added-value benefits, such as health risk assessments or wellbeing information that can be tailored to an organisation’s programme. Some providers may also be happy to attend on-site ‘health fairs’, often bringing along medical staff or kit to help employees find out key health data such as their blood pressure and cholesterol numbers.