David Batman: The whole of person approach to employee health

David BatmanIn the complex modern business environment, people managers need to promote a comprehensive approach to health and wellbeing. In particular, they face challenges as they address issues related to psychological health, such as anxiety and stress.

21st century challenges

Times have changed for people managers. Previously, the emphasis was on managing physical risks and their impact on employees, in relation to manual handling, noise and repetitive strain injuries. Business emphasis was on managing absence, treatments and return to safe working.

But recent trends have seen a move to a more office-based, customer service, IT-driven workforce with new challenges and demands impacting significantly on psychological health, stress, depression and anxiety. Changes in the global economy are creating a workforce that will be required to work longer, both in terms of hours and lifespan, in a world of insecurity and uncertainty. Technology has driven a move to a 24-hour ‘employee workplace’ with constant connectivity. This has major consequences for work-life balance. Businesses need to become increasingly proactive, both in their support of employee health and business resilience.

Create a culture of health

In this environment, the key lies in addressing multiple components of health and wellbeing; health is multifaceted, and therefore, to truly build a culture of health and wellbeing, an organisation needs to focus on its many components, including physical, psychological, career, financial, social, and community wellbeing in the workplace.

Some simple but effective ways to make a lasting impact, in a business of any size, include: leading by example from the top so business leaders show a commitment to health; employers demonstrating they care about employee wellbeing with actions, not just in policy and words; making health choices simple choices available to all at low cost; making a financial commitment to wellbeing so create a budget; creating and supporting local champions; and making a long-term commitment as part of an HR planning strategy.

Psychological wellbeing

Psychological health affects 17% of the working population, and 30% of us will experience one or more episodes in our lives. These numbers demand action. But the rise in poor psychological wellbeing presents a problem for people managers because it is largely an invisible issue. If an employee has a back injury, employers can see their struggle and help. That is not the case with psychological wellbeing.

Successful outcomes require a responsive and understanding line manager, one who is equipped to spot and engage with psychological health issues. If employers do start to observe tell-tale signs in employees, such as low morale and poor-quality work if they are present or frequent, frustrating absence if they are not, then they should apply a deft touch. This may include HR involvement, and perhaps flexibility in working hours or requirements. Remember: it is counterproductive to confront or risk stigmatising employees.

Body and mind

The mind-body connection is undeniable. There is no physical illness that does not have a psychological component. We all worry when ill. Pain affects the brain, lack of sleep affects the body, for example. Fifty per cent of our risk of ill-health is related to lifestyle, for example, exercise, nutrition, sleep, in addition to other factors, such as smoking and alcohol intake.

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These risk factors are also major contributors to psychological illness, which have an impact on employee and business performance. By tackling the risk factors with a whole-of-person approach to health, employers can begin to inform and educate employees of risks to their job performance and personal lives. It is vital to have a cohesive approach so that changes become a habit and not just a short-term challenge.

Dr David Batman is chief medical officer at the Global Corporate Challenge