MT Expert - People: Does employee wellness make good sense for business?

We all know that healthy staff are usually more engaged, and more productive. But should businesses play a role in encouraging employees to live well?

by Alex Gourlay
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Workplace health has been in the spotlight this week as the Government announced its Public Health Responsibility Deal. The deal asks employers, the voluntary sector, NGOs and others to agree actions they can take ‘to help people make healthier choices’.  

In my role as Chair of Business in the Community’s (BITC) Workwell Leadership Team, I have been asked several times over the past few days, ‘will it work?’ BITC certainly welcomes the deal, having signed up to a number of the pledges, as have many of its members including Alliance Boots’ businesses in the UK. As we all know, employees’ level of wellness can sustain, or erode, their level of engagement. Wellness combined with engagement drives sustained employee performance.  

The numbers speak for themselves: sickness absence costs UK employers £8.4 billion each year; but the cost of presenteeism – employees working when they’re ill, or not fully engaged – is nearly twice as high, at over £15 billion per year. Employers need to take urgent action to nurture the psychological and physical health of their employees if they are to ensure the competitiveness of their companies in difficult, as well as prosperous, economic times.

But what do we really mean by employee wellness? HR consultancy Towers Watson defines wellness as being comprised of the mutually supportive relationship between the physical, psychological and social health of the individual. BITC’s definition of engaged employees are those that work with passion, commitment and trust to drive and sustain their flourishing organisation.

But while most business leaders know instinctively that a happy, healthy and engaged workforce is a productive one, many still treat employee wellness and engagement as a bolt-on, tending to focus just on physical health, rather than taking an all round approach to enable the whole person to flourish.  

That said, the pledges aren’t necessarily for everyone. Consider them, but it’s important to review them with your senior management team, HR, Occupational Health, Health & Safety and line managers, as to how they align with your business objectives and question whether, in fact, they are the right starting point for your organisation. You might even need to consider the pledges as part of a phased approach as integrating such programmes are not overnight successes but managed journeys. The BITC Workwell Model provides a strategic framework for articulating to your board the business benefits. Its four segments promote the actions employers can take to create an environment where employees can flourish: Better physical and psychological health, better work, better specialist support, and better relationships.

In a nutshell, when considering the Responsibility Deal, as with any business investment, make sure you start with a clear strategy rather than retrofitting the strategy to the tactics.

- Alex Gourlay is the chief executive of the Health and Beauty Division, Alliance Boots and Chairman of BITC’s Workwell Campaign. He will be speaking at the BITC Workwell Summit on 10th May,

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