How can preventative health measures support employee wellness?

preventative health

Need to know:

  • Before implementing a preventative wellness strategy, employers should uncover the specific health and wellbeing challenges faced by their workforce.
  • Proactive wellness initiatives should consider both physical and mental health; on-site or subsidised yoga classes, for example, can be a good way to address both.
  • Technology is vital in helping to demonstrate return-on-investment and to track the impact a strategy is having on staff wellbeing.

The recent push by health secretary Matt Hancock to encourage people to take more responsibility for their own wellbeing ties in with what many employers have known for some time: preventing ill-health in the first place is the most cost-effective, and desirable, method of reducing both sickness and the burden on businesses and the NHS.

Employee wellbeing is an increasingly central focus for employers; this is hardly a surprise, when considering the positive effects on productivity and engagement. So, how can organisations fully embrace a preventative, proactive approach to wellness?

Starting out

In discussing how to begin building a preventative approach, John Dean, chief commercial officer at Punter Southall Health and Protection, says: “Unless [an organisation] can identify the specific health and wellbeing challenges [employees] face, [such as] high levels of stress, poor sleep, money worries, lack of exercise or mental health concerns, [it] won’t be able to create a strategy that can be targeted effectively and which ultimately helps to improve wellbeing.”

One method is to identify key health risk indicators, such as the number of smokers, levels of obesity, incidents of mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions, and monitor these against the national averages or NHS guidelines.

Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson, says: “This [use of data] can paint a high-level picture. Initiatives can then be introduced that address specific problem areas by encouraging healthy behaviours and lifestyles.”

Implementing initiatives

There are a number of measures employers can use to help improve the health of employees, both physically and mentally. The Health and wellbeing at work 2018 study, published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth in May 2018, found that 40% of employers offer advice on healthy eating and leading a healthy lifestyle, 39% offer gym memberships, and 32% host wellbeing days.

Employers can also encourage staff to be more active during the working day, particularly in jobs which are largely sedentary.

David Lewis, senior associate in the employment team at Capital Law, explains: “Technology, particularly wearable devices like a FitBit or integrated mobile phone apps, can really help raise awareness of physical activity. Employers can encourage the use of this type of technology through some healthy competition, like step goals between different departments with prizes.”

Initiatives such as step challenges, free fruit and workplace fitness sessions can encourage the kind of everyday behavioural change that helps employees bolster their own wellbeing with ease.

Alexandra Thompson, head of people at manufacturer Harvey Water Softeners, says: “We’ve set up a ‘healthy heroes’ taskforce [that drives] the health and wellbeing agenda through fun activities like ‘smoothie Friday’, daily walking sessions and step challenges. We’re also just setting up subsidised exercise and yoga classes, where we fund the instructor to give staff an extra push to participate.”

A mental health focus

Mental ill-health now accounts for around one in eight sick days, according to Sickness absence in the UK labour market, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in March 2017. Many employers, therefore, are placing increased emphasis on the psychological wellness of staff, alongside physical health. Indeed, there are some initiatives that cover both.

Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage, says: “Office exercises like yoga can make everyone take five minutes away from their desks to focus on themselves, clear their heads and generally just feel better. Encouraging regular breaks, flexibility or working remotely can help employees balance a busy day in the office with the equally important personal responsibilities that everyone has.”

Apps such as HeadSpace or Elefriends, an online community run by mental health charity Mind, can also help employees cope with stress.

There should also be an emphasis on identifying and preventing the root causes of stress, says Matthew Lawrence, chief broking officer, health and benefits, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Aon; this, in turn, should be sure to take financial wellbeing into account.

Aon’s 2018 Financial wellbeing survey of multinational employers, published in July 2018, found that, while only 14% of employers have a financial wellbeing strategy in place today, more than 60% aim to have one within three years.

“[The key drivers behind this are] to reduce an employee’s financial stress, improve engagement and support the wider benefits programme in place,” says Lawrence.

Communications

Any initiative aiming to implement preventative health measures needs to be effectively communicated if it is to gain the engagement of employees and have a strong impact.

Lisa Blackwell, senior healthcare and employee benefits consultant at Sanlam UK, explains: “Communications can vary from on-site promotional awareness through to emails, posters and even challenges with rewards to gain momentum.”

Apps can be particularly effective, Blackwell adds, because employees can use these in their own time, when it is convenient and they are most likely to engage.

Monitoring return-on-investment

Technology also has a vital role to play in helping employers keep track of the success of their preventative wellbeing initiatives, says Jack Curzon, head of scheme design at Thomsons Online Benefits.

“The place every employer wants to get to is proving a real impact using data; for instance, demonstrating [that] a successful wellbeing strategy increases engagement, motivation and efficiency, while reducing absence and proactively improving employee health,” Curzon notes. “This cannot be achieved without using a technology platform and real-time data analytic tools.”

However, few employers truly understand the impact of their investment in such initiatives, which can make it hard to argue the case for future projects.

Dan Lucy, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says: “Many collect data on participation, but within that may not have an idea about whether programmes are reaching those most in need. Understanding the impact of efforts, what works [for whom], is critical to be able to optimise investment and to avoid investing in [a measure] which sounds good but may not have a real impact.”

Instead, it is important to ensure that preventative health measures are used effectively, as the results can be invaluable. Lucy concludes: “A healthy workforce is more resilient, engaged, innovative and agile. All these are things any business operating in such complex and challenging times would want.”

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