Thought leaders 2010: The year ahead: Growing interest in wellbeing strategies

Key Points

  • Businesses have realised that investing in employees’ health should be a crucial component of their business strategy
  • One-third of businesses have a wellbeing strategy in place – and that figure is likely to increase
  • Measuring the effectiveness of your wellness programme is essential to help guarantee its long-term success

Employee health is becoming a priority, says Breckon Jones, employee health and performance manager, Unilever UK and Ireland

During a serious economic downturn, employers could be forgiven for doubting the business case for investing in their employees’ health. Company chairmen might question whether a wellness programme will boost their bottom line or give them a commercial edge. HR directors, faced with the prospect of possible restructuring, might claim that lowering staff cholesterol levels is not top of their agenda. And employees might look for their employer to offer benefits that boost their bank balance, rather than be grateful for a new salad bar in the canteen.

However, British employers appear to be challenging such conclusions. More businesses than ever have woken up to the fact that investing in their employees’ health should be a crucial component of their business strategy, irrespective of the economic climate.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Absence management survey 2009 found that one-third of businesses have a wellbeing strategy in place – and this figure was likely to increase substantially.

Business benefits

The CIPD findings also suggested the penny has dropped in many boardrooms that there are clear business benefits to be gained. The report found evidence that businesses would switch from a health-and-wellbeing approach to a health-and-performance mindset as more directors see the link between a fit business and a successful business.

In August 2009, the Public Health Commission, an independent working group set up by shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, pointed to the growing importance of the workplace as a place where the government and businesses should strive to help people make healthy choices.

So it looks like good news for occupational health managers: the arguments for investing in employee health seem to be winning support both inside and beyond UK boardrooms.

But the question remains: how should the 70% of businesses that have yet to join the movement go about developing a corporate wellness programme? Each company has its own culture, values and operating structure, so clearly there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Interesting insights

However, Unilever’s Fit business programme, a year-long workplace health pilot at our headquarters in Leatherhead and Port Sunlight launched at the start of 2009, has generated some interesting insights.

The first is the importance of evaluation. Measuring the effectiveness of your wellness programme is vital to help guarantee its long-term success. Not only does it aid discussions in the boardroom about the scheme’s value, such as a potential reduction in sickness absence, but it will also help to show which parts of the programme are working or need adjusting.

The second point is to maintain freedom of choice. We decided ‘Fit business’ would not be about editing people’s choices. The objective was to create an environment in which people have all the tools and knowledge required to make healthy decisions. For example, rather than removing unhealthy food from our staff menus, we published guidelines on the nutritional content of the food we serve.

The third point is that clear and consistent communication is essential. People are bombarded by health information from many fronts, so we mirrored the messages that were already being communicated by health organisations to maximise their impact. For example, ‘Fit business’ focused on helping people reduce their saturated fat intake at the start of 2009, dovetailing with the Food Standards Agency’s own campaign at the time.

As the case for effective workplace health schemes gathers momentum, we should seize the opportunity to work together to create a fit and healthy workforce for the new decade.

Read more articles from Thought leaders: The year ahead