A third of our adult lives are spent at work, so it’s not surprising that health and wellbeing has become an increasingly important component of workplace strategy. A consequence of this has been businesses outsourcing the task of keeping the company fit and has led to a boom in the corporate wellness sector. An annual growth rate of 7.2 per cent in the next 10 years is predicted for the sector, far outpacing the overall economic growth expected to rise an average 2.7 per cent per annum, according to research house IBIS World.
Corporate health programs are not new however. One of the first companies to launch a holistic wellbeing program back in 2001 was Unilever Australia. Initially geared for senior executives it focused on exercise, nutrition and mental resilience as the leadership prepared to take the company through transition. The success of the program saw it rolled out globally over time, with variations tailored to individual regions.
The perception of health and wellbeing programs remains that they are largely a soft and fuzzy indulgence, afforded only by large corporations with large budgets, and that their value to the bottom line is unproven. A recent survey of 200 employers and 5000 employees, by healthcare and health insurance company BUPA, indicated that at least a third of workplaces are yet to develop any sort of health and wellbeing program.
Of that third, nearly 40 per cent said the introduction of a program would be too expensive and about one in three said they didn’t have a team to work on it, says BUPA national medical director Dr Rob Grenfell. About 20 per cent didn’t think health and wellbeing programs were a priority.
Interestingly, Unilever was also one of the first organisations to assess the effectiveness of its health and wellbeing program via a study conducted by Lancaster University in the UK in 2003. The results allowed them to put a figure on their investment. They discovered that for every £1 ($1.96) Unilever invested in employees’ wellbeing, it saw a return of £4 ($7.85) through reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity. Not only that, those classified as “high health risk” dropped by 5 per cent.
Evidence shows that the health and mental resilience of employees are directly related to productivity, confirms Rob Grenfell.
“Improve the health and wellbeing of your workers and they’ll want to come to work, they’ll want to participate. And if that doesn’t improve productivity, I don’t know what does,” he says.
“You invest in the maintenance of machinery, so why not invest in your most important asset – your people – to make sure they’re running at peak capacity?”
For companies struggling to set up and run health and wellbeing programs, outsourcing is an option but it isn’t a case of one size fits all, says Grenfell.
“Each organisation is along a different trajectory to promoting health and wellbeing. For example, you might find through a staff survey that only five per cent smoke – so why have a [broad-based] smoking cessation program? Instead, it should be targeted.
“Or it may be that your industry has specific physical parameters. You might have construction sites where people need strengthening programs focusing on knee and back care, as opposed to more general programs promoting being active.”
Hidden mental illness
In the area of mental health, almost half of all adult Australians say they have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Mental illness costs Australia about $20 billion a year, including lost productivity and reduced labour force participation, the ABS reports.
In many cases, employers aren’t aware of mental illness among their employees. Research shows that about 40 per cent of Australian employees don’t tell their employer about it, compared to around 25 per cent in Europe, says Jack Heath, chief executive of the national mental health charity SANE Australia.
“There’s a big issue here in terms of people feeling comfortable raising the issue in the workplace,” says Heath.
SANE Australia has a bank of more than 60 speakers who help companies begin conversations about mental illness.
“When we do workplace presentations, we always make a point of taking along someone who has experienced mental illness themselves, and invariably they’ll be people from a corporate background,” says Heath.
Small business focus
The self-employed and business owners also need looking after when it comes to mental health, says Peter Strong, a former retailer who is chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia. He would like to see greater emphasis put on supporting sole operators and small businesses because they often don’t have the time or resources to focus on health and wellbeing.
The 2015 AHRI Awards program includes a Mental Health in the Workplace Award and a Health and Wellbeing Award. Visit ahri.com.au/awards for more information.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Energy industry’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.