Not showing up at work on a Monday morning is becoming a bit of a national habit. And skipping Fridays is also increasing in popularity. The fact that employees now routinely miss up to nine days of work per year, collectively costing their employers more than £11.6 billion annually, is making even the most laid-back companies sit up and pay attention.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's employee absence survey, employment sickness is up 3.7% over last year. Add to that the alarming evidence of mounting ill-health in the population at large - alcohol consumption in the UK has doubled since 1980, for example - and employers can no longer deny that there's a wellness problem in the workplace.
HR executives have been trying to solve this knotty problem for some time. Are employees not showing up at work because they hate their jobs, or are their jobs making them ill? So critical has the subject of wellness at work become that top consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) was invited to present its findings on the subject at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year.
Deaths from chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiac and respiratory conditions - those most frequently linked to age and an affluent, sedentary lifestyle - are rising, while deaths from infectious diseases are falling. As a result, more than half of the multinationals surveyed by PWC for its paper Working Towards Wellness expect to introduce corporate wellness programmes in the next five years.
The alarming state of affairs is making companies reconsider the definition of their duty of care. 'Companies used to look at productivity in the workplace as a government issue, but, increasingly, they are having to take it on board,' says Stephen Bevan, director of research at the Work Foundation. He reports that at any given time, 3%-5% of the population are off work, and a further 25% are at work but operating below par.
Corporate wellness offerings vary from weight-loss programmes, yoga classes and massages to free lunches, gym memberships, stress counselling and confidential helplines. In fact, companies are now competing to show how caring they can be to their employees. The latest wellness perk is weekend spa breaks with companies such as in:spa, run by two former Goldman Sachs bankers. 'Companies are talking to us about making spa breaks with us part of their bonus scheme,' says Gillian Crotty, director of in:spa in London. 'We have already got one-day workshops lined up with companies that are putting health and wellbeing at the top of their list for employee focus.'
And not without reason. Getting a good name in this area helps a company to attract the best people, who tend to bring in the most revenue. And today, the best people all expect health perks of some sort - a good gym, at the very least.
Cadbury Schweppes and the Royal Bank of Scotland have enlisted the help of companies like Nuffield Proactive Health, a comprehensive health service that offers a range of popular health and fitness programmes - on site. BP and Virgin - among others - have enrolled staff on Allen Carr's anti-smoking courses, at an average of £250 per person. PepsiCo even paid workers £51 each to fill out a health questionnaire; respondents deemed at risk were sent to a health coach.
Companies are lining up to try to boost the wellness of their workers. Says Kate Kelly, head of employee relations and reward at Marks & Spencer: 'We have an occupational health service staffed by professionally qualified occupational health advisers to help our people with work-related issues. We have a confidential helpline, which our people are able to call 24 hours a day, seven days a week if they are suffering from a problem that they feel is affecting their health.'
Health and wellness perks on offer vary from a free lunch - comfortable seating, with tablecloths and proper cutlery - to psychological coaching on the premises. At investment consultants Stamford Associates, employees can sit down to a Cordon Bleu lunch made by the resident chef. 'You can smell the vapours across the office, and at lunch you hear laughter throughout the building,' says Janet Larsen, a clinical psychologist at the firm. 'For many single men this is the only nutritious meal of the day.' Lunch provides energy, a break from the desk and a degree of social interaction, all of which are said to help reduce stress.
Mother, the largest independent advertising agency in Britain and no stranger to cutting-edge employee wheezes, takes the wellness of its employees very seriously. As well as lunch - costing the firm £5 a day per person - all staff get another £1 per day to put towards Shiatsu massage or gym membership. They also have a resident doctor and a slew of goodies to make staff feel appreciated.
'We have found that our staff turnover is less than at our competitors,' says Matthew Clark, one of Mother's five partners. 'Since we started serving lunch, we've noticed that people don't routinely take off for an hour, and this makes them more efficient.' Though he considers all five partners to be caring people, he says Mother is clear that getting the job done is the critical issue.
Research for Channel Four found that in the UK, the average employee works seven hours a week for nothing. Britons work the longest hours in Europe and seven out of eight workers say they do it because they have to, not because they want to. Yoga classes, mountains of strawberries and a helpline are no substitute for the fact that most employees would probably like to knock off work at 4pm on a Friday.
'It's not because you put in a gym that you create a positive mindset,' says Stamford's Larsen. 'It's about the general point of view of the company. When I was working in management consultancy, we tried to find (the source of) the problem, and it was usually the management. If they are utilitarian and focused on bottom line, no amount of gyms or hot lunches will make any difference.'
Larsen was responsible for suggesting and implementing paternity leave in her office. 'We now get messages (from staff calling in absent) such as "Chris is not coming in today, he was up all night with the baby", which is perfectly acceptable. What is important is the sense that the company values people's private lives.'
Stress management experts see very little value in straightforward perks. 'A jolly lunch is simply a Band-aid,' says Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus, a psychologist with the Mind Gym, which coaches the staff of many large companies. 'You have to look at the underlying issues that cause the stress in the first place, as well as the employees' belief systems. Twelve per cent of employers believe that their employees are absent because they are pulling a sickie to stay home and, say, watch football.'
Some companies - Lloyds TSB for instance - are trying to give their workers more choice over their working hours. Some are even trying to stop their employees from working too long. 'Companies are taking systematic steps to try and reduce stress in the office,' says McGuire-Snieckus.
Indeed, what Bevan at the Work Foundation found was that bad jobs made people ill, not necessarily inherent bad health. Professor Michael Marmot, author of Status Syndrome, found that people in low-level jobs had much higher levels of stress and illness.
Says Bevan: 'There is not much evidence that offering health-enhancing activities in the office will make any difference.' For many, there is a confusion between what is a preventative health measure and a perk. 'What really motivates people to do a good job is to give them a good job to do,' he adds. And this goes hand-in-hand with a management system that is supportive, flexible and lets employees function with a degree of autonomy.
Bevan believes that contentment and motivation are the keys to wellness at work. 'Businesses need to be more flexible and focus on the quality, not the quantity, of the job,' he says. In other words, if an employee is happy, he or she comes to work happy and works happily and well.
But is it really so easy? An investment banker working for one of the supposedly more enlightened American banks has no patience with the wellness initiatives that his firm offers. 'First of all, canteens are designed for one reason only: to keep you in the building where they can keep an eye on you. It's the same with the in-house gym. If you want to make someone really ill, have him work out next to his boss. That will send his blood pressure soaring. It's all just Big Brother stuff. The truth is that most workers want to get as far away from the office as they possibly can.'
These perks are also used, he believes, as a sop for those who would really prefer to work flexibly and raise a family - particularly women. 'Companies throw massages and counselling at their female workers in lieu of flexible hours and well-paid, well-respected, part-time work.' No amount of concierge services, gym passes, weight-loss points or even weekend retreats in five-star hotels can get around the fact that employees want and need more control of their work and home lives.
Some of it is simple biology. Many sick days could be avoided by forcing employees who are sick to stay at home. As long as you have a culture that encourages people to head straight to the office after an overnight flight nursing heavy colds (and foreign viruses), which they then pass on to a whole office, you will have plenty of sick days. Stress has to be alleviated somehow (in the gym, on the beach, by hanging out with friends or taking a long walk) or it becomes chronic, leading to more serious illnesses or simply the inability to get out of bed on a Monday.
Knocking off work at 4pm on a Friday - as most Danes do - to enjoy a long weekend's worth of fishing and other pursuits goes a long way to avoiding the Monday sickie. New York banks learned a long time ago that their workers were somehow always ill on a Friday in the summer. The explanation was simple: the Long Island expressway is best navigated in the morning before the traffic to the Hamptons builds up. To compensate for the lost days, employees agreed to take shorter holidays.
'What we found is quite simply that workers want their requests heard, and when the management offers something, they want them to mean it,' says a PWC spokeswoman.
EIGHT WAYS TO HELP YOU STAY WELL
1. Drink eight glasses of water throughout the day
2. Limit your caffeine intake
3. Eat your five-a-day fruit and veg
4. Enjoy a balanced and varied diet
5. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day, five days a week
6. Maintain a good work/life balance
7. Cut down on your salt intake
8. Moderate your intake of alcohol
EIGHT WAYS TO KEEP STRESS AT BAY
1. Write a list of things you have to do that day and review it at the end of play
2. Start again the next day
3. Use your diary to plan your work, not just your meetings
4. Take advantage of the support systems on offer at work
5. Put off other things when entering a time of stress. Even thinking about clearing time helps reduce anxiety
6. Plan your weekends. Don't just use them as time to relax, otherwise they can feel pointless
7. Schedule half an hour for yourself every day
8. Make a decision to make a decision.