Most companies are aware of the links between workplace health and productivity. The logic is clear: if employees are healthy, they will take fewer days off sick, and will work more effectively the rest of the time. This is not to mention the boost in job satisfaction when they feel their employer cares about their well-being.
Unfortunately, employers in the UK may struggle to get wellness initiatives off the ground. As Shaun Subel, strategy director at VitalityHealth explains, they can face a number of challenges in building a business case.
"First, the existence of the NHS reduces the employer's duty of care with regard to its employees’ long-term health," he says. "Second, UK employees have the highest turnover rates in Europe, meaning programmes with only long-term benefits can struggle to find strategic relevance. Third, there is no specific guidance around measuring workplace wellness."
The upshot is that many UK companies fail to invest in staff health and well-being, with a knock-on effect on economic performance. It is estimated that health-related lost productivity (including absenteeism and underperformance) costs the UK economy a staggering £73bn a year. This equates to more than a month of productive time per person.
Finding Britain's healthiest workplace
VitalityHealth's 'Britain's Healthiest Workplace' competition was developed in response to these challenges. An annual survey, approaching 'health' from many angles, it is designed to help companies quantify the benefits of workplace health initiatives. Since it began life in 2013, over 400 companies and 100,000 employees have taken part.
"Britain’s Healthiest Workplace links employee lifestyle choices to productivity and engagement - factors that impact the bottom line in the short term - rather than solely to long-term health outcomes, which do not," says Subel.
The competition scores each company on two dimensions: Healthiest Employee (how healthy the workers themselves are) and Healthiest Employer (how the company is supporting its workforce to be healthier). The first of these takes into account factors like smoking habits, mental well-being and physical activity levels. The second looks at levels of workplace stress, organisational culture and the kinds of health interventions on offer.
How the winners did it
"At Nomura, we have moved beyond just providing our employees with access to medical and fitness facilities, and expanded our offerings to help promote overall well-being," says a spokesperson for Nomura, the winning large company (more than 1,000 employees). "We have a canteen that offers a wide range of healthy options, a desk assessment programme to motivate movement, relaxation classes and company-sponsored sports and social clubs that are open to all employees."
Forster Communications, which was the winning small company (less than 250 employees), believes that the most successful ways of supporting employee well-being are often the simplest.
"We're a small company with limited budget, so have been creative with our interventions," says Kate Parker, the HR manager. "It’s essential to make sure you have a communications plan to remind people of what's on offer, and to keep nudging them into positive habits. Ask for feedback constantly and don’t be afraid to evolve to keep it fresh. The greatest participation has always been from ideas that our employees came up with in the first place."
The company provides its employees with accessible options to help improve their physical health - for example, free fruit in a bowl in the middle of the office, and lunchtime walking clubs. It also offers incentives to stay active, like extra holiday allowance for employees who cycle or walk to work, as well as paid time off for volunteering and flexible working practices.
Mental health, too, is high on the agenda. The company has spent a lot of time ensuring that everyone feels confident in seeking the help they need.
"It's important to build a culture where people feel safe talking about difficulties and discussing solutions," says Kate Parker. "This means being explicit about your mental health policies and visibly walking the walk when it comes to support for mental health."
A recent survey showed that 100% of Forster’s employees were proud to work there. Its employees took an average of 2.7 days off sick last year, 7.8% less than the sector average. Nomura, meanwhile, has seen a measured reduction in presenteeism (ie underperformance due to ill health) since it started building up its health offerings.
What can other companies do?
VitalityHealth has found that, in general, the healthiest companies are those with the highest levels of employee participation in their wellness programmes. By offering rewards for taking part, they expand the reach of their programmes beyond employees who are already healthy, to those who are currently ill or at risk.
Importantly, the interventions themselves do not have to be very sophisticated to make a difference.
"When it comes to workplace wellness, any strategy, regardless of how basic, can yield important business outcomes, such as reduced employee work impairment and higher levels of employee engagement," says Shaun Subel. "Our research shows that the most successful interventions tend to be in the areas of physical activity and nutrition, and the least successful in the areas of smoking cessation and alcohol consumption."
He says companies can use the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace competition as an intervention in its own right - they will receive a comprehensive analysis of their performance, highlighting areas they can improve.
"Regardless of your current approach, we believe strongly that all organisations can benefit from participation in the study," he says. "Registration is currently open for the 2018 study, with surveys being made available later in the year."
Kate Parker at Forster adds that, however healthy your workforce is at present, it's important not to rest on your laurels.
"Try out new well-being initiatives and most importantly, talk to your employees - what benefits do they use the most and particularly appreciate?" she says. "A thriving, productive and happy workforce needs stimulation and new ideas."