Louise Aston: Taking a whole person approach to physical and mental health at work

What can employers do to create workplaces that support the mental and physical wellbeing of employees? Louise Aston discusses how healthy workforce’s in turn become more profitable and productive. 

Musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders and mental ill health are the two major causes of days lost to sickness absence for employers today. MSK leads to 30.6 million days lost, costing £100 billion a year, with one in eight of the working age population report having an MSK problem. Mental health is estimated to cost the UK economy £70 billion a year, with 15.2 million days lost annually due to stress, anxiety and depression.

These figures mean that adopting a strategic and proactive ‘whole person’ approach to physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace is more essential than ever before. While I am fortunate enough to meet many employers that do recognise the value of this approach, there are still senior leaders who do not view employee wellbeing and engagement as an integral part of how business operates. Basic legal requirements can be met, but the pressures of meeting quarterly targets and operating in a 24/7 global economy mean that ‘wellbeing’ can be all too easily undervalued.

Healthy, engaged and resilient workforces are more productive and profitable in terms of efficiency, loyalty, retention and sustainable performance. Yet in 2015, UK workforces were 31% less productive than those of the US and 17% less productive than the rest of the G7 countries, despite similar working hours. This productivity puzzle will have many components, but wellbeing must be acknowledged by employers as a factor; physical and mental health issues have a significant impact on productivity. MSK disorders, such as back, shoulder and knee pain, make up the largest number of working days lost in the UK (the 30.6 million days a year referenced above). Meanwhile, more than 15 million sickness days were attributed to stress, anxiety and depression in 2013, and presenteeism from mental ill health costs the UK £15.1 billion per year.

This data makes the business case for investing in a ‘whole systems, whole person’ approach to wellbeing clear. By this I mean putting mental wellbeing on a par with physical wellbeing and recognising the inextricable links between the two. Stress can manifest itself as MSK disorders, whilst an MSK issue can result in sufferers experiencing poor mental health and depression. If an employer addresses both, the results will be twofold.

Many employees will feel comfortable discussing their physical health at work, but this is not necessarily the case for all complaints and certainly not the case with mental health. Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work report found that whilst 77% of employees had experienced symptoms of poor mental health, with 62% saying work was a contributing factor to those symptoms, only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their manager. This reinforces just how prevalent stigma and fear of disclosure around mental health is. This fear can also relate to physical health; a condition can become aggravated because an employee feels unable to discuss it openly with a line manager, through embarrassment or concern about being penalised at work. Failure to address either at an early stage can cause a more serious injury or more detrimental consequences.

Suicide might be regarded as relatively rare, but it’s still over two-and-a-half times more likely to happen than a road accident, and is the leading cause of death in England in adults below the age of 50. That’s why, even though suicide remains a highly taboo topic and is at the acute end of the mental health spectrum, it’s vital that responsible employers take the risk seriously and ensure they have protocols in place around prevention and postvention as part of organisational continuity planning. Postvention refers to the actions taken by an organisation to provide support after someone dies by suicide. For employers, it is increasingly likely that your organisation will be affected by suicide, either through the death of an employee or of someone who has a significant role in the business, such as a supplier or a contractor.
So what can employers do to create workplaces that support the physical and mental wellbeing of employees?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for wellbeing in the workplace, and nor is it a quick fix. This is why it is critical that employers take a strategic ‘whole systems’ approach. Only then will wellbeing be embedded into organisational culture and process. To support employers, Business in the Community and Public Health England have recently published a suite of free online toolkits to help employers take a ‘whole systems, whole person’ approach to mental health, MSK, suicide prevention and suicide postvention. The toolkit suite is relevant to all employers regardless of size, sector or how advanced their wellbeing strategy is.

The toolkits are interconnected and each lays out similar road maps for action, with expert advice, checklists at the end of each section, and good practice examples and experiences from employers. We have specifically included case studies and examples from large, small, public and private employers, and spanning a huge range of sectors – so that any employer can appreciate how they can take action in their own unique organisation.
The suicide postvention toolkit is the first of its kind for employers and supports continuity planning for if the worst happens, framing the approach in a similar context to risk and crisis management for physical disasters, and emphasises the importance of communication, particularly during the first critical 48 hours (see box out #2). It helps employers to consider the issues that arise from a suicide in the workplace and put in place steps that will mitigate the impact of suicide.

I urge all employers to recognise that musculoskeletal health, mental health and suicide can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or occupation. It doesn’t matter what size your business, or what sector you operate in, there will be employees in your organisation affected by these issues – most likely on an unanticipated scale. It is inevitable that this is affecting employee engagement and operational performance. As an employer, you have a duty to acknowledge the business case to act responsibly to create safe workplaces and support employees to feel comfortable discussing their wellbeing. We hope that these toolkits will help you to create more open workplace cultures and put mental health on parity with physical health.

If you’re interested in improving worker health and wellbeing, don’t miss the opportunity to hear Louise Aston speak at HRreview’s Health at Work Summit on the 4th May at the Holiday Inn Kensington Hotel.

About Louise Aston

Louise Aston began her career in textile design, working as a fashion buyer for Marks and Spencer. She transitioned into health campaigning by designing a children’s sun protective swimwear range for an award-winning Department of Health skin cancer prevention campaign. As Creative Director at COI, she led high profile public sector campaigns including 5 A DAY, ‘Don’t Give Up Giving Up’ and FRANK. Since joining Business in the Community as Business Action on Health’s Campaign Director in February 2007, she has produced groundbreaking research, developed practical tools, by business for business, forged partnerships with Government Departments and secured the commitment of UK’s top companies to boardroom reporting on employee health and wellbeing by 2011.

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