Wellbeing events can pay off

Wellbeing events can help employers to raise employees’ awareness of key health issues, which may positively affect productivity, says Sam Barratt

A growing number of employers are organising wellness days, weeks and even months to help employees improve their health and productivity. But while these events have their merits, it is vital that they are tailored to an organisation’s requirements to achieve the maximum benefit.

There’s certainly plenty of choice around what topics and services to include in such an event. Health checks can be arranged on everything from allergies to lung function and cholesterol levels, while health professionals can run workshops on topics such as nutrition, sleep and coping with stress.

Some organisations also incorporate activities into their wellness events. The London School of Economics, for example, organised Pilates and yoga sessions, vocal workshops and a 90-minute walk around the local area as part of a wellness month. It’s also common to see massages included within these events as well as freebies such as pedometers and fruit to encourage staff to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Stephen Hackett, health and risk benefits director at benefits specialist PIFC Consulting, says: “Employers can build their own days, perhaps bringing in existing benefits partners such as their employee assistance programme provider or gym, or they can use a company to arrange the day for them.”

Providers can tailor days to an employer’s requirements or provide a ready-made themed day covering topics such as nutrition, work-life balance, sleep, back care, posture and men’s and women’s health. Diana Nye, commercial director of Vielife, explains: “One of the most effective programmes we run is on hydration. This involves free water bottles, with details of how many times you need to fill them each day, facts about hydration and pee charts in the toilets. It’s great because it’s relevant to everyone and people do perform better when they’re hydrated.”

Putting together the right wellness events can have benefits for employees and employers alike. Chris Jessop, chief executive of Nuffield Proactive Health, says: “These events can make employees more aware of changes they need to make and kick off a long-term behavioural change.”

This can lead to improved employee health, which may also result in reduced sickness absence levels and better performance in the workplace.

Identify hotspots
As well as changing employees’ behaviour, wellness events can identify areas where employers need to change. While running lung capacity tests as part of a wellness day, for example, Andy Lee-O’Neil, operations director at workplace health promotion New Leaf Health, found many warehouse-based employees at one client had carbon monoxide ratings that were typical of light smokers even though most of them didn’t smoke. “This was because there were a lot of forklift trucks and wagons coming into the warehouse. We brought it to the company’s attention and it is changing its procedures to prevent this happening in the future.”

Events can also improve employees’ perception of their employer. Diana Paine, account consultant at ICAS, explains: “It can help you be seen as an employer of choice.”

She regularly attends wellness days organised by clients and believes they can be a good way for employers to promote the benefits package they provide. “This reminds employees what benefits are available, which increases take-up but also improves their perception of their employer,” she adds.

Running a wellness event can also be a good way to introduce a new benefit or benefits package. Hackett, for example, recommended one of his clients run a wellness week to launch its flexible benefits scheme. “This worked really well as it enabled them to present the new benefits to staff as well as improving their communications,” he says.

The cost of an event will vary depending on what is included. At the cheaper, and often free, end of the scale, employers could approach their healthcare benefit providers to stage an event on their behalf.

To add in professional testing and expert advice costs a lot more although it’s likely to make a greater impact on employees. Lee-O’Neil explains that a day will cost anything from £600 to around £2,500 depending on the number of employees an organisation has, and the type and number of wellness professionals required. On top of these costs employers also need to factor in the cost of staff time to arrange and attend the event.

As with any expenditure, it’s likely that the cost of running a wellness event will need to be justified. But measuring the return on investment isn’t easy. Ailon Freedman, founding director of wellness company Lotus Exchange, says: “It is tricky as there are so many external factors that come into play.”

He adds that most of the evidence is anecdotal, with employees saying they appreciate the change in culture that can result from running these events.

To make an event more successful, there are several tricks employers can use. Roger Beastall, medical director of PMI Health Group, believes employees should be involved from the very beginning. “If you’re launching a health initiative, involve your employees, trade unions, and health and safety committees so there’s a good understanding of the reasons behind it and its value,” he explains.

Employers could also tap into employees’ views using a survey or by running an anonymous health and lifestyle assessment as this can identify potential hotspots that could be addressed by a wellness event.

Linking an event to a theme or health issue in the media can also help to drum up interest. In the run up to the introduction of the smoking ban, events centred around smoking cessation were particularly popular, for example.

Once an event has been arranged, it is important to promote it well in order to boost employee attendance. Kevin Dewhurst, head of organisational health management at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “It’s pointless having a couple of stands in the foyer. Make a day of it and let your employees know about it. You could also let them book appointments for tests and go round the company on the day to encourage them to attend.”

It’s also essential to provide support to employees after the event so they can follow up any changes they make, adds Jessop. “To be honest, health days or weeks don’t have much value if you run them in isolation. You can’t really go into enough depth to change behaviour and you won’t attract the people that really need to make changes.

“If you want to make them really effective they need to be part of your health and wellbeing strategy. This way you can help employees make lasting changes to their health,” he says.

Case study – Toshiba sparks staff health kick

Toshiba introduced a wellness week last year, as part of a series of initiatives designed to improve employee health and wellbeing.

Susan Stevens, head of HR at Toshiba, explains: “We wanted to pull together all the themes we had introduced and reinforce the message that we valued our employees’ health and wellbeing.” The week was split in to three main themes – stress, nutrition and exercise – with a range of activities and health checks organised for employees. These included workshops on coping with pressure, chair massages and free fruit. “The most popular session was the one we arranged with a dietician. We organised 15-minute [long] one-to-one sessions for employees and this was over-subscribed so we arranged additional telephone sessions,” adds Stevens.

But while take-up of these initiatives was good, she admits that it was difficult to measure how effective the week was from a financial perspective. “We included a question on our last staff survey, asking whether they thought the company cared about their wellbeing and this was rated very positively. We do still get asked for free pedometers and see people using them so we believe they must have a positive impact on our employees,” she says. Further events, including a hydration week, are planned for later in 2007.