There is nothing new about employers looking out for the health and wellbeing of their staff. Even Henry Ford, whose labour policies helped to inspire the HR landscape that evolved from 1920s America, looked to reduce dependence on alcohol among his workforce.
The business case
HR professionals say these sorts of programs offer a “slam dunk” investment, with returns well in excess of their outlay. Healthy employees are generally more productive and require less absences from the job.
Vaughan Paul, group human resources director – consumer at Optus, says the improvements associated with a healthier workforce are some of the most measurable in HR. With onsite physiotherapists, gyms and partnerships with third-party providers, staff are able to choose the interventions that best suit their needs.
Julia Farrant, vice president of HR for Unilever Australia, says the company has a well-publicised mission to help its customers “look and feel good”, so it’s important that the goal is also championed internally. “Healthy and engaged employees are good for business,” she says.
In July 2011, Unilever launched the Australian version of its global Lamplighter health and wellness program. It seeks to put health and happiness at the top of the agenda for staff in all of its operations by having each country market able to use the program to concentrate on different health concerns such as fitness, nutrition, and wellbeing.
Paul says nutrition is also one of the most important parts of the My Wellbeing program at Optus. “Priorities change over time, but diet and weight remain central focus areas of the program.” He says staff in all roles have access to a range of healthy eating tips and seminars as part of the nutrition focus.
10,000 steps to wellbeing
The natural teammate of nutrition in any health intervention is fitness and exercise, and most corporate healthcare plans will include incentives for staff to develop more active lifestyles like subsidised gym memberships, and the opportunity to join sports clubs.
Whitegoods distributor Miele has added a competitive element to its fitness advocacy, signing up to the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) program. Megan Munday, head of HR for Miele Australia and New Zealand, says 119 of its 450 staff participated in the 16-week activity challenge, with each one given a personal pedometer and encouraged to walk 10,000 steps a day.
Munday says the measured results were better than anyone on the HR team had expected. Of those who participated, 63 per cent now meet or exceed daily exercise recommends and 80 per cent of participants now rate their health as either “good” or “excellent”.
New focus on healthy minds
While diet and fitness have been common parts of corporate health programs for years, many HR professionals feel that’s no longer enough. Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia, a national organisation advocating for those affected by mental illness, says one in every two people will experience a mental illness over their lifetime.
One organisation doing that is Entity Solutions by offering its 87-strong workforce a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This is a third-party counselling provider that any staff member can utilise for free and in private.
In addition to the EAP, which has been in place at Entity Solutions for 14 years, the company recently signed on to SANE Australia’s Mindful Employer program. This is a workplace training and support service that teaches key employees to recognise and respond to symptoms of mental illness among their colleagues.
The fight for resilience
In today’s uncertain economic environment, there is one characteristic that employers are finding more and more valuable in their workforces: resilience, says Dianna Ryall, managing director of Xplore for Success consultancy. “Different people respond to challenges in different ways,” Ryall says.
Case study: keeping firefighters in good mental shape
With 338 stations and 7300 retained (on call) and permanent staff, Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) is one of the largest urban fire services in the world. Acting assistant director of health and safety Megan Smith says health and fitness are important parts of the HR team’s role, with mental wellbeing a natural priority.
“Staff can be exposed to traumatic and very stressful incidents,” she says, because FRNSW crews attend a wide range of incidents which is why they offer an external Employee Assistance Program.