Key trends in workplace health and wellbeing


Learn more about the key trends in workplace wellbeing at Employee Benefits Live 2016 on 11-12 October at Olympia National, London

Workplace health and wellbeing programmes aim to make employees healthier, happier and more productive. But, as well as evolving to reflect the latest thinking in health and wellbeing, these programmes can also adapt to help address some of the key challenges organisations are facing.

For many employers, one of the most significant challenges they are facing is the ageing workforce. Government figures published by The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in October 2011, An ageing workforce, show that a third of the workforce will be aged 50 plus by 2020, with the number aged over 65 already well in excess of one million.

Ageing workforce

This shift in demographics brings significant health challenges, according to Rachel Suff, public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “Older employees tend to have less short-term absence but they are more likely to have developed chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure,” she says. “Employers should factor this into workplace health and wellbeing programmes.”

As well as providing more health information to help employees reduce the risk of developing these types of conditions as they age, more health-screening initiatives are worth considering. These can help employees detect problems early and, in many cases, make lifestyle changes to prevent them developing altogether.

While some of the focus will be on keeping employees fit and well, employers will also need to consider how they deal with chronic conditions in the workplace. Liz Egan, lead for the Working through Cancer programme run by Macmillan Cancer Support, says: “Employers need to prepare for a huge increase in the number of people working with chronic conditions. As an example, today, around 750,000 people of a working age are living with cancer but, by 2030 this number is expected to increase to 1.7 million.”

To help employers, the charity has developed its Macmillan at Work programme. This provides employers with the information, through newsletters, toolkits and e-learning, to enable them to support employees with cancer in the workplace.

Preventative measures

While more and more employers are looking at ways they can be better prepared for this shift in demographics, there has also been a broader move towards looking at prevention rather than cure across workplace health and wellbeing programmes.

This approach was highlighted in the Health and Safety Executive’s Helping Great Britain work well strategy, which was published earlier this year. Edward Braisher, health and safety information manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), explains: “Earlier prevention is a key factor when it comes to improving health and safety in the workplace, especially because it is more cost-effective than trying to intervene when a person is suffering from more serious ill-health.”

There is also plenty that employers can do to prevent employees developing health problems. Dr Steven Nimmo, a consultant in occupational medicine and a member of the Society of Occupational Medicine, explains: “Workplace health promotions can work well but even simple things such as introducing walking clubs and healthy food in the canteen can make a big difference to employees’ health.”

Technology is proving to be a good way to deliver some of these initiatives. With most of us now carrying smartphones, apps and wearable technology are becoming increasingly popular in workplace programmes, says Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community. “These can be used to track everything from diet and activity through to sleeping patterns,” she explains. “But what makes them particularly popular is that as well as being able to personalise goals, they also encourage healthy competition. This makes them fun and engaging.”

Mental health awareness

The move from cure to prevention is also happening for mental health. This remains a major issue for employers, with charity Mind estimating that mental health affects one in six British workers a year, but there are signs that employers are taking it more seriously.

Although line manager training remains key to helping identify potential problems early, some employers are moving the agenda forward by making mental health more high profile, says the CIPD’s Suff. “It can be really powerful if someone at work talks about their mental health problems,” she explains. “This openness and understanding can help to get rid of the stigmas around it.”

A good example of this is Barclays’ ‘This is Me’ campaign. In this, employees talk openly and frankly about their mental health conditions alongside other aspects of their lives such as having children or being a football fan. This helps colleagues gain a better understanding of different mental health conditions, while also drawing attention to the support that is available through the organisation.

A growing number of employers are also looking to help employees become more resilient. As well as the growth of programmes such as mindfulness training in the workplace, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can provide this preventative support. Andrew Kinder, chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), says: “Where an organisation is going through change, [it] can work with an EAP to identify potential issues. This insight can help to minimise the stress that employees will experience.”

Technology is also being used more to support employees’ mental health. For example, EAPs are beginning to introduce apps. “These can provide more interaction, guiding employees to the right advice and information but also helping with coaching,” says Kinder. “The technology will also monitor how it’s used so it can potentially understand more about the employee and the problems they have.”

Work-life balance

As well as seeking to make people healthier, both physically and mentally, workplace health and wellbeing programmes are also seeking to make them happier. “Employees want a good work-life balance and we’re seeing more employers putting measures in place to accommodate this,” says Aston. “We’ve seen some offer employees unlimited holidays and wellbeing day allowances but employees also appreciate simple measures such as flexible working so they can work around family issues such as child or elder care.”

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One firm that has taken this approach further than most is Agent Marketing, a full-service marketing agency based in Liverpool. Always keen to embrace health and wellbeing strategies, it trialled the Swedish concept of a six-hour working day for a couple of months earlier this year. At the end, everyone assessed how it had worked. Paul Corcoran, managing director, explains: “Finishing at 4pm every day didn’t really work for our clients, but we did see that the shorter hours meant we were more refreshed and enthused about our work, so we decided to adopt some of the flexibility the six-hour day offered.”

As a result, employees work a six-hour day on Fridays and are able to finish at 4pm on another working day. “Being able to get this work-life balance makes the world of difference to our employees and, with last month being our biggest yet, it’s good for business too,” Corcoran adds. “If you want people to work really hard, you have to look after them.”