Corporate UK's Wellness Agenda: A Case for Radical Innovation

The present health crisis in the UK is a national issue and one that employers need to play an active role in managing. Among the several factors contributing to its current state, obesity and stress are said to be at the top of the list as the UK now faces an unprecedented public health crisis.

The present health crisis in the UK is a national issue and one that employers need to play an active role in managing. Among the several factors contributing to its current state, obesity and stress are said to be at the top of the list as the UK now faces an unprecedented public health crisis. I firmly believe employers must play a vital part in improving the lives of the nation's workforce.

Different programmes, different goals

Recently an Australian friend of mine received her relocation package and was overjoyed to see the privileges she will benefit from as part of her new employer's wellness programme. It got me thinking why there might be such a variation globally with Corporate wellbeing programmes.

With workplace wellness programmes gaining popularity around the world, it is interesting to note that there is a large variation on the nature and thus the objectives of corporate wellness programmes across regions. In the US, employee assistance programmes were most prevalent; in Europe the focus is on discount and fitness club memberships, while biometric health screening is becoming common in Asia.

The primary goals of corporate wellness programmes by region are:

US:reducing healthcare costs

Europe:improving employee morale

Asia:reducing absenteeism

The facts for the UK

Absenteeism and presenteeism (reduced performance and productivity due to ill health while at work) are major areas of concern to employers in the UK. Currently in the UK, the average office worker takes 6.5 days of absence. Taken cumulatively across the UK working population, this amounts to 190 million working days for absence and approximately £8.4 billion lost annually. Remarkably, the cost of presenteeism to UK employers is estimated at £15 billion per year, significantly more than absenteeism.

Some more staggering statistics:

•Over a third of employers have highlighted stress-related absence to be on the rise. In the workplace, 41% of private sector employees state that they are experiencing stress because they are under excessive pressure at work.

•Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are among the top 5 reasons employees are absent from work

•Obesity rates are rising rapidly in the UK and could lead to 90% of men and 80% of women being overweight or obese by the year 2050. Currently, 16 million days lost per year due to obesity-related issues.

Despite the obvious implications of a less productive workplace, employers in the UK have mixed opinions on whether the benefits of corporate wellness programmes outweigh the costs of these programmes.

UK Employers' attitudes to health and well-being amongst their employees

Source: Health and well-being at work: A survey of employers

However, extensive in-depth research conducted by PwC in the UK has shown why corporate wellness makes commercial sense, looking at both intermediate as well as financial benefits.

I have some suggestions for employers to consider in implementing programmes that have a more profound and far-reaching effect on the lives of their workforce than what is currently on offer.

1. Show an unconditional dedication to employee health and wellbeing

First, make one individual dedicated to the health and wellbeing of the company's employees - the Chief Wellness Officer. No matter the industry, this role has a place on every board. By having someone actually accountable for employee wellbeing makes the firm more aware how seriously this objective is being taken.

Second, measure the benefits of any implemented programme rigorously. It is critical to accurately measure the specific benefits of such a program similar to any other measure on a balanced scorecard.

Third, look how to encourage behavioural changes even outside the workplace- so that good habits are maintained and bad ones do not return. For instance, if employees only use the corporate gym during the week, what incentives are in place for employees during the weekend? Would they be encouraged to purchase pedometers to track their activity (or inactivity)?

2. Look to firms that HAVE taken radical steps in managing the health of their workforce

An example here that comes to mind- last year a CEO of a large insurance company in the US injured himself after a serious skiing accident. After conventional forms of medicine had failed him and were unable to ease his chronic pain, he turned to non-traditional forms of therapy such as yoga, craniosacral therapy, and acupuncture. What he experienced changed his life irrevocably. His chronic pains disappeared and he felt normal for the first time in a long while.

He wondered what would happen if he applied these practices in the office to alleviate stress among his employees. The company recruited 200 volunteers to participate in a 12-week mindfulness meditation and yoga study. The findings, published here in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, show that the traditional Eastern medicine practices reduced stress, measured by cortisol levels and heart rate variability, and thereby reduced employee medical costs.

I am in no way suggesting that alternative therapies or other therapies replace conventional medicine but that these practices should be considered complementing conventional medicine. The East has long embraced alternative therapies and remedies, for thousands of years. Much of this knowledge has proven invaluable to our western way of life and lifestyle.

Finally, I wanted to add that this cultural shift in attitude was possible for Aetna as the change not just came from the top- but the very top. Employees actually saw their CEO speaking about the benefits he personally experienced from practicing these techniques. They then saw others in the workforce experience benefits- that's powerful.

It's difficult to change the culture of a company to think radically about health if this push does not come from the top- so leaders need to walk the talk if they are serious.

3. Gamify corporate health

Finally, I propose what is already in practice throughout the US, which is the gamification of corporate health. Essentially, employees participate in digital games (usually via a health app that is part self-monitoring and part entertainment) with co-workers, creating "healthy" competition where they can win rewards, perhaps even cash, if they hit their health goals.

Would it work in other regions? Similar to the US, the UK is facing tremendous cost pressures in light of its over-burdened national health service. Corporates participating in gamification programmes can substantially prevent obesity and other lifestyle-related issues, curbing the out of pocket and insurances costs incurred later.

Of course there are some significant challenges that are faced when considering this approach, the most important being employee privacy.