Dr Yousef Habbab: Calling HR! Better wellness for better business health

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haw-week-badgeWorkplace wellbeing is a concept which has come of age. Twenty years ago, it scarcely registered on the boardroom agenda but today, spurred on by the recession and relentless pressure of globalisation, interest in the subject has mushroomed. But what is workplace wellbeing and why should HR professionals be sitting up and taking notice?

There’s much more to managing wellbeing at work than simply knowing what makes employees happy. Rather, think of it as a state affected by a myriad of physical, psychological and social drivers – the biopsychosocial axis. It might, for example, be affected by an employee’s financial and relationship issues, which can lead to stress, anxiety or even depression, or by an ailment that adversely affects their mobility.

Whatever the cause, the consequences of ill health can be calamitous for a business, with considerable direct and indirect costs arising from sickness absence (estimated by the CIPD* to cost UK employers £554 per employee per year, with employees off work sick on average 6.9 days a year) and presenteeism (where employees attend work when unwell and perform sub-optimally). According to the Centre for Mental Health, £15bn of the UK’s annual £26bn business costs of mental ill health at work are attributable to reduced productivity of employees when at work.**

Important though it is to manage sickness absence effectively (as I will set out below), equally if not more important is prevention – taking a proactive approach to promoting employees’ physical and psychological health and wellbeing. While this may be as simple as promoting flu jabs for at-risk employees in advance of the winter flu season, at a higher, more strategic level, HR can really shine by taking the lead on the development and introduction of programmes to support and strengthen employee resilience. And a good place to begin is building and sustaining a positive, supportive workplace culture where employees are encouraged to lead healthy, active lives, have a good work/life balance and, if they should become ill or injured, are actively supported to secure suitable care. (This includes encouraging employees to take time off when necessary for check-ups and medical appointments.)

Strong leadership – led from the top – is critical for success, with senior management evidencing its commitment to the cause. Line managers also need to be suitably trained and supported to promote employee wellbeing – for example, by being attuned to signs of psychological distress so that in these circumstances they can guide employees to suitable professional help. To help employees to have a good work/life balance, it’s important to avoid the pitfall of overworking. While there will, of course, be times when the pressure is on and teams have to put in extra effort, employers should nevertheless try to encourage employees to work to their contracted hours as often as possible. It is good policy to encourage them to do their best when they’re at work but also to make the most of their time when they’ve finished for the day, unburdened by workplace concerns. Encouraging employees to take regular breaks (and their holiday) will also help as will accommodating flexible working, where practicable. Steps such as these will enable employees to be more resilient and less likely to succumb to stress and fatigue.

While employers may be nervous of counselling employees on lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, these can significantly affect both physical and psychological health. Indeed, poor physical health can be bad for mood, self-esteem, energy levels and resilience. High blood pressure, for example, is associated with diminished cognitive ability, according to a 2008 study of people aged 40 to 60 by Stefan Knecht and colleagues from the University of Munster.**** Even simple measures such as encouraging a healthy, balanced diet (which employers can facilitate by ensuring their canteens, vending machines and lunch delivery services offer healthy choices) and regular exercise (which they can facilitate through gym discounts and by promoting activities such as walking groups or company sports teams) can help to improve physical and mental health.

Despite best efforts to promote wellness, illness and injury will inevitably affect employees from time to time and, to manage this effectively, HR professionals have a critical role to play in ensuring their company both has a sickness absence policy in place and that it’s effectively communicated to everyone in the workforce. In addition to setting out the company’s approach to sick pay, it should explain what to do if employees are ill and the support the company offers. This should include an explanation of procedures for sickness absence reporting and certification, keeping in touch when off sick and returning to work when better.

To manage absence effectively, a balance needs to be struck between encouraging ill or injured employees to return to work at an appropriate opportunity but not pressurising them to come back while they are still unfit or unwell. This can be an issue even for well meaning employers as we know from our own research that two thirds of employees go to work even if they are ill.*** But getting this wrong can backfire and, if mishandled, a too early return to work can even lead to an extended period of absence should the employee have a relapse or recurrence of their condition. And, for some contagious conditions, a too early return can result in the illness spreading to other members of the workforce.

For employees who are absent for longer periods, it is important for employers to stay in touch with them both to see how they are progressing as well as to help them feel less isolated by letting them know that they’re missed and the team is thinking of them. In most cases this is best effected by line managers, whom HR can support by introducing suitable protocols for maintaining contact that meet both employers’ and employees’ needs. Staying in touch should also help to boost absent employees’ morale as well as enable employers to track their recovery and identify things they can do to progress it such as paying for physiotherapy or counselling or providing access to occupational health support. Indeed, the input of OH professionals can be especially helpful as their insight and experience are invaluable in helping employees make a timely, successful return to work – for example, by advising on an appropriate rehabilitation programme which might include a phased return to work, amended duties, altered hours and/or workplace alterations.

By dealing with sickness absence quickly, sensitively and professionally, HR professionals can go a long way towards minimising the disruption it can cause. Prevention, early intervention and allowing ill or injured employees sufficient time to recover are all key to positive attendance management. Healthy, confident employees are an asset to any organisation and, by actively engaging with your workforce to support their health and wellbeing, you can go a long way to creating a workplace culture that optimises performance and productivity.
ends

*CIPD (2015). Absence management 2015:
http://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/absence-management_2015.pdf

**Centre for Mental Health (2007). Mental health at work: developing the business case:
http://www.incorporasaludmental.org/images/doc/D_ENG_EMP_DOCU_GUIA_0036_Developing_the_business_case.pdf

***AXA PPP healthcare (2014). Two thirds of Brits go to work when sick:
http://www.axa.co.uk/2014/newsroom/media-releases/two-thirds-of-brits-go-to-work-when-sick/

****Stefan Knecht, Heike Wersching, Hubertus Lohmann, Maximilian Bruchmann, Thomas Duning, Rainer Dziewas, Klaus Berger and E Bernd Ringelstein (2008). High-normal blood pressure is associated with poor cognitive performance. Hypertension: 51: 663-668:
http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/51/3/663.full.pdf

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