A free gym membership may tick the employee benefits box but companies must go beyond CSR guidelines if they are to move the needle on employee health and wellbeing
As employment rights regulations go, the UK framework, compared to other states, is not too shoddy. Most employers adhere to legal obligations in keeping the workplace safe for their employees. But as many workers will attest, the stresses that come with working life go beyond the periphery of HR’s health and safety remit and more still needs to be done to ensure that employees are physically fit and able to handle the day-to-day churn.
For those unconvinced, a recent report by the CBI – Getting Better: Workplace Health as a Business Issue – indicated that employee absence is burning an estimated £14bn fiscal hole in the economy. A stark reality perhaps, but the good news is the problem is not without a solution: companies must shift their focus to positive health management rather than managing the consequences of absence.
At Quintiles, the medical research company, employee health management is just another manifestation of the company’s core values. “What we do is bring people and knowledge together for a healthier world,” explains Jacqui Riches, employee health manager at Quintiles, the pharmaceutical research firm. “We need to look after ourselves if we’re going to do that well for our clients.”
Though not all companies operate in the health and medical realm, no business is exempt from the duty of care they owe to their employees. All employers are required to meet statutory requirements, and there are clear guidelines and recommendations on things like health and safety and introducing flexible working policies. However, going beyond the letter of the law to discuss wellness poses some difficulty because it is a highly personal and subjective matter which involves individual lifestyle choices and areas that are the beyond the control of a business.
SMEs also have to deal with the categorical constraint on resources. “It always comes down to budgets,” explains Tricia Kalloo, CEO of Wellness International, the health and wellbeing services provider. “In managing employee wellbeing, we must bring it back to a simple thing and that’s a company’s corporate social responsibility, its ethics and morals.”
Elliot Hurst, director of health consulting at AXA, the insurance services provider, says that there is no legal compulsion on the part of employer to act but it comes down to a moral compulsion and the impact of inaction on the business. “It’s a question of ‘if we don’t help our people get to a better stage of health, then who will?’” he says. “But increasingly you act because if you don’t there might be an adverse impact on your competitiveness, profitability and customer satisfaction and retention.”
Like a well-oiled engine, any business needs its components firing on all cylinders in order to continually perform at its full potential but beyond this, having a wellness strategy can demonstrate positive corporate citizenship both within the company and in the market. Moreover, it can help enhance or soften the perceptions of a brand.
“There is an element here that says ‘we can differentiate ourselves as a business because we attract and retain the very best talent,” elaborates Hurst. “Going to the local allotment and tidying up or doing something for a local charity is not only good for our brand in the local community, it also gets the people together as a team all doing something constructive and positive outside the workplace.”
Demonstrating some care for employees clearly has its advantages beyond bolstering business performance but the starting point is to assess what is already in place and map out what you want to accomplish.
Hurst takes AXA clients through a health audit process. “We bring together the various disparate parts of their business and the information within the business that pertains to health,” he explains. “It’s a combination of looking at things like absent statistics, data on staff turnover and looking at potential hotspots or parts where people are particularly engaged or otherwise.”
But in cases where there is no baseline data to understand the company’s health and wellness position, Riches advises starting with a simple survey or an online health and wellbeing assessment on which to base some wellness programming, ensuring managerial and leadership involvement throughout the process.
Kalloo adds that employee involvement can assist in shaping a cost-effective programme. “Health and wellbeing programmes do not need to be exorbitant,” advises Kalloo. “You can create initiatives that are low-cost and driven by the employees.”
Even once progress is underway, companies must bear in mind that there will be a group that is difficult to motivate. “Sometimes people do not engage because of fear of coming up against the ‘fit bunnies’ or just being timid,” comments Kalloo. “To get those bums off of seats you need to make sure that your programme involves a wide array of activities and is not focused only on the gym.”
Hurst agrees. “A successful health and wellbeing programme needs to be as far reaching as possible,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive but it can be impactful. Ensure that whatever you do is highly visible and is well-marketed.”
John Styring, founder and CEO of Igloo Books, the children’s book publisher, also believes variety is key. “A lot of fitness is actually free,” he says. “And it doesn’t cost a lot to provide people with one piece of fruit on a Monday. Somebody might start eating more fruit and then buy it themselves throughout the week.”
A small change can make a big difference. Healthy, happy employees are more productive employees. Suffice to say, implementing a wellbeing programme can be a welcome shot in the arm for small businesses.
Top tips for a successful health and wellbeing programme
- Sponsor it at the top – Hurst emphasises having senior advocacy for the programme within the business
- Keep it going – “Companies need to understand, when they create their health and wellbeing strategies, how to implement it but equally, and more importantly, how to sustain it,” comments Kalloo. “Make sure it is liveable and affordable.
- Monitor participation – “Collecting aggregate results from initiatives helps to tailor further programming to suit employees’ needs to make sure that you offer them the right things,” says Riches.
- Follow health trends – “Whether in the psychological, cancer or diet and exercise arena, align your health calendar with what charities and public health bodies are doing at any given point during the year,” Hurst says. “Make use of other free and regularly available accessible information. Support is out there.”
Guy Blaskey - Pooch & Mutt
Our company and our food are about healthy nutrition; everyone in the Pooch & Mutt office has to understand that both from a dog and human point of view.
Everyone at lunch time is free to do what they want, whether that’s going to the gym or taking the company dog out for 10k runs. We have showers so people don’t have to go to a gym to run and they’re able to clean up and carry on with work.
We’ve done Tough Mudder together and we sign up for a lot of races together. Some companies might look at time away from the desk as a negative but it can be fantastic thinking time.
We’ve also just signed up for the Cycle to Work scheme, which works out well financially for both employees and employers and it gives everyone a chance to exercise on their way to work.
John Styring - Igloo Books
The important thing is putting employee health and wellbeing pretty high up the agenda. We have a starter pack so when anyone joins the business they understand all the different things that we do and the events we run. For example, we have a sports day in the summer.
We have Free Fruit Mondays where we provide free fruits for our employees and we have a small team of people who run together. We aim to give people access to fitness activities that perhaps they wouldn’t always do if they don’t have people to play football with, for example.
We’ve got a couple of dogs and we’re fortunate to be in a rural environment so people can go and walk the dogs at lunch time. Just getting out in the countryside starts to introduce people to a healthier way of living.
Jacqui Riches - Quintiles
Healthy U, Healthy Q is Quintiles’ wellness programme which we offer as part of a wider employee health management service. All new starters are issued with a branded Healthy U, Healthy Q pedometer to encourage them to get moving more and be aware that each and every step count.
Our physical activity reimbursement programme allows our employees at any location to be reimbursed for being physically active and to try new activities to suit their lifestyle.
We have onsite classes such as yoga, Zumba, tai-chi, meditation and dance classes at our larger office sites and we have wireless outside so people can have meetings in the fresh air. It’s all about breaking up the day and getting away from the desk.