An investment in health is a recipe for wealth

– the UK’s future economic growth is at threat without a healthy workforce

An investment in health is a recipe for wealth

For most UK businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic produced a seismic shift in the relationship between employees and employers. With business leaders witnessing first-hand the links between the health of their workforce and business resilience, many have become increasingly aware of its direct influence on employees’ health and well-being, recognising the potential productivity gains of making health a strategic business priority. 

The economic cost of ill health 

The stark truth is that premature ill health is currently acting as a significant barrier to unlocking the full economic potential of the UK. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimated that poor health costs the UK £300 billion in lost economic output annually. Recent ONS labour market data shows 2.5 million potential employees are ‘economically inactive’ due to long-term health problems, while at the same time, many businesses struggle to hire. 

Additionally, with the cloud of economic uncertainty looming over many households amid the cost-of-living crisis, we are witnessing record levels of employee burnout. Looking at this wider picture, there is a clear case for treating the mental and physical health of the workforce as a top business priority, and it should be a cornerstone of our long-term economic growth policies. 

The limited role of government 

Undoubtedly, the government and the healthcare system have a critical role in this matter. The Department for Work and Pensions recently launched a new digital service designed to offer support to SMEs managing health and disability in the workplace; providing advice on how to engage in effective conversations with employees about health and offering recommendations on how to help those struggling with their health to stay in work or return following a period of absence.

However, we have a healthcare system based on treating people when they are ill and with stretched resources, lack of incentives and a culture not rooted in proactive prevention, the system finds itself woefully ill-equipped to address the vast majority (up to 85%) of determinants to our health that have nothing to do with the care we receive from doctors in our hospitals

As Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, recognised, there is growing awareness that “the government and healthcare system can only address some of the systemic issues leading to poor health, and there is growing awareness that many of the solutions lie outside the NHS” 

Unlocking the full potential of workplace health & wellbeing 

If harnessed and guided correctly, the business community has a real opportunity to support the public sector and proactively work to enhance the health and economic resilience of the nation. Through business-led health interventions (investing and executing effective well-being strategies for employees) and doing more in their communities as ‘anchor institutions’ (working with local NHS as part of new ‘integrated care systems’), not only can business leaders have a positive impact on the lives of their employees, and the communities in which they live and work, but they can also ensure better business performance.

Beyond boosting the productivity of existing workers, a commitment to the health of your employees will also improve recruitment and talent retention in the long term. The fact is that increases in life expectancy has stalled, and the 20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between richest and poorest citizens is, shockingly, at risk of widening even further post-pandemic.  These worrying trends obliges businesses to identify effective ways to contribute positively to employee health, and their communities, while sustaining an ageing workforce – especially at a time of increasing skills shortages and drop-out from the labour market due to ill health. Those that fail to adapt risk being left behind. 

Empowering businesses to take the lead

If we expect businesses to champion health initiatives, business leaders must be supported with clear advice to ensure investment is optimally directed towards high-impact, evidence-based interventions. Currently, approaches and investment levels often differ across sectors, regions, and company sizes. For instance, the hospitality sector has had significant issues with staff health and typically lacks the professional standards and qualifications for wellbeing that other sectors have.

This is the torch taken up by Business for Health, a coalition of major UK businesses working together to embrace and support the spread of preventative healthcare in the workplace. The coalition – an outcome of one of the key recommendations of the Health of the Nation Strategy produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity – seeks to showcase what good business-led health intervention looks like, detailing the benefits to workforce health and business growth. 

Shortening hospital lines while improving the bottom line

As has been recognised in the climate and zero carbon debates, what’s good for the planet and its people is also good for shareholders and business owners. With their direct influence over the lives of millions of employees, the potential positive outcomes of promoting health and well-being more effectively in the workplace are enormous.

Guided by the insights that a coalition like Business for Health can offer, businesses prioritising health and wellbeing could help boost GDP and tax revenue; massively ease the burden on the NHS and the social care sector; improve the sustainability of pension pots and ensure that citizens remain happier and more economically active for longer. 

The future of work is evolving; employee needs and expectations are evolving fast, and the country is staring down the barrel of a public health crisis kicked off by the pandemic but rapidly exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, and the latest economic woes unleashed since the new government took power. The scale of the challenge is large, but with the right tools and plans, businesses can lead the way forward to healthier economic stability for the country.  

Tina Woods
Tina Woods

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