Health numbers keep a check on employees’ wellbeing

If you read nothing else, read this….

  • ‘Numbers’ are the data collected via health screening, such as BMI, heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Poor health can lead to staff developing serious complaints, such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Knowing their numbers can help employees take positive action to improve their health.
  • Employers need staff champions to continually promote health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Calculating employees’ health risk numbers can help organisations maintain a healthy workforce and reduce staff absence levels, says Tynan Barton

A while ago, health issues among Unilever’s workforce included cardiovascular disease, obesity and hypertension risk. But then, after the company implemented a one-year pilot for its ‘Fit business’ programme, absenteeism fell by 17%; body mass index (BMI) decreased by 26% in one of its factories and 9% at its head office; there was a 6% reduction in heart disease for the highest risk group; and the number of staff who felt they enjoyed better health and wellbeing by working for Unilever increased from 43% to 64%.

Such programmes require a health and wellbeing strategy that meets the particular needs of a workforce. For this, the employer must profile the collective health of its staff by collating the health numbers. Jill Pollock, consultant at Bupa Health and Wellbeing UK, says: “One of the most important steps in trying to decide how to improve the health of a workforce is to understand where they are starting from and what the health profile of the organisation is at the moment.”

Knowing the health numbers – such as weight, BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart rate information – can help to improve staff wellbeing and detect diseases early, which can slash the cost to employers of staff suffering from ill health.

Health numbers give an indication of an individual’s picture of health – good or otherwise – and their potential risk factors for developing conditions such as coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or musculoskeletal problems. Louise Flowers, head of claims management at Lorica, says collating this information can show an employer whether any targeted health interventions could benefit the individuals concerned, and can identify areas the employer might target to prevent absence.

There are a number of ways for employers to gather these numbers. One is to have a person on site to carry out one-to-one discussions with staff and collect health data. Another option is for a provider to visit, perhaps on an allotted day or at a health fair, so employees can drop in for an assessment.

“A number of organisations like to offer annual on-site checks for staff,” says Flowers. “If they do not have the funding to send everybody off for a full health check, having someone come on site and do mini-checks can be very valuable to gauge what some of these numbers are for their workforce.”

Health risk appraisal

Once individuals have up-to-date numbers, the information can be entered into a health risk appraisal. Staff also answer questions about lifestyle factors that can influence their health, such as diet, exercise, how they manage stress, sleeping habits, alcohol consumption and smoking.

This assessment will produce an overall report of the individual’s health, and will be fed into an aggregated, anonymised data report for the employer. Jessica Colling, product director at Vielife, says: “That translates into a risk profile, so although you might actually be at work and healthy, if you have a poor score, you are a much higher risk, from an employer’s point of view, of being absent or less productive while you are at work.”

An employer can use the aggregated data report to predict how health improvements might benefit their business.
Paul Gambon, head of sales at Medicash, says: “From an [organisation’s] perspective, the implications of one person going off sick with a heart attack, for example, and the cost of paying that person sick pay, could be considerably more than introducing a scheme to identify that person’s risk in the first place.”

Sedentary lifestyles revealed

If a report reveals, for example, an area where people are struggling with sedentary lifestyles, it could be an opportunity to encourage them to join a gym. Matthew Judge, director at Jelf Group, says: “If, for example, [employers] had information that might indicate obesity and smoking were more prevalent than they thought, they might invest in programmes that help people to take some responsibility for their health.”

Health data can be used to benchmark an organisation, for example how its stress profile compares with other employers, or showing what an optimum profile should look like. This can then be given a monetary value in terms of absence and productivity. Louise Aston, national director, Business Action on Health at Business in the Community, says: “It is about taking a proactive approach to wellness. How [employers] manage the wellness of their people is important because the more well their workforce is, the better the work and the productivity.”

When finances are tight, promoting and communicating a health and wellbeing strategy does not have to be expensive. Dr Mark Simpson, medical director at Axa Icas Occupational Health Services, says: “Health risk assessments allow [employers] to identify high-risk individuals, but they need to invest significant time and effort to change the behaviours of those individuals.”

For a health and wellbeing strategy to succeed, it must be championed within the organisation, usually by a group of employees willing to take on the role. “Sometimes employers will find a champion on the staff who is interested in this,” says Flowers. “And for a fairly low cost, they can do something that employees really buy into and feel it is of value to them.

Managers must understand strategy

Employee buy-in is a major contributor to the success of any strategy, but managers as well as staff need to understand the benefits that are available and communicate them in a way people understand and engage with. Bupa’s Pollock says line managers play a significant part in managing health. “A worthy investment and starting point for employers in terms of investing their health and wellbeing funds is making sure their managers understand it properly,” she adds.

The strategy must be communicated, constantly, perhaps with poster campaigns or information on the employer’s intranet site about gym membership or healthy eating, for example. Axa Icas’ Simpson suggests incorporating other benefits as an incentive. “If [employers] have a corporate private medical insurance scheme with an employee excess, they could offer a reduced excess for people who participate in these programmes.”

Once the numbers have been collated, employers must take positive action to promote the health and wellbeing of their staff. Flowers adds: “It’s the very forward-thinking organisations that take all that information and start to shape a health and wellbeing strategy that really fits their business.”


  • Coronary heart disease costs employers £3.5 billion a year in direct and indirect costs, absence management, training and lost productivity, according to Bupa’s Healthy work: Challenges and opportunities to 2030 (2009) report.
  • The Department of Health says costs to the economy relating to obesity, for example reduced productivity caused by sickness absence, amount to £16 billion.
  • Sickness absence costs UK businesses £17 billion a year, according to the Confederation of British Industry’s On the path to recovery: Absence and workplace health survey 2010.

Case study

National Grid powers up health checks

The health of National Grid’s staff is crucial to the business. Of its 10,000 employees, 4,000 are field-based engineers.

This group of staff, responsible for climbing overhead lines and fixing gas leaks, have regular medical checks because of the impact their work can have on their health.

National Grid analysed the data from these checks and found that although the staff were fit for work, they were running broader health risks. The group was ageing, in their mid- to late 40s, and a significant number of them were overweight.

And although the field-based staff were receiving regular health checks, there was no programme for the 6,000 office staff.

The company decided to trial Wellpoint health kiosks in a couple of offices. These measure weight, blood pressure, BMI and calculate body fat percentage. National Grid also added a lifestyle questionnaire to the health screening to find out exercise levels, nutrition, smoking and alcohol habits. Staff received their numbers as well as recommendations on how to change their lifestyle to improve health.

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Andy Buxton, health standards manager at the firm, says: “If you work on lifestyle issues, you can have a huge influence on improving those numbers.”

Read more on health and wellbeing