Susan Gee: Wellbeing in the workplace – What does it mean and why does it matter?

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Not too long ago, employees had little expectation of their employers taking an active interest in their health badge-links-to-all-articlesand wellbeing. Susan Gee from Yorkshire Water talks to us about why is important that workplace wellbeing is a HR focus.

In 2008 the World Health Organisation stated that entitlement to a safe and healthy working environment that places high regard on worker health and wellbeing is not an option, it’s a fundamental human right.

When you type the phrase ‘health and wellbeing at work’ into Google it brings up in excess of 49 million results so it’s a subject that a lot of people are interested in. There are numerous interpretations of what it means and thousands of companies providing workplace health initiatives, tools, and services to businesses as well as a raft of academics researching the subject.

Despite all of this information being available, it’s evident that whilst most organisations report that wellbeing is their number one priority, the reality is that many struggle to develop a meaningful wellbeing strategy and bring it to life.

The workplace is made up of people from all walks of life who present with numerous physical and psychological health issues that have the capacity to not only impact negatively upon them, but also on the business they work for.

Not too long ago employees had little expectation of their employers taking an active interest in their health and wellbeing and as such they left their problems ‘at the clock’. Now in 21st century Britain there are numerous arguments to support health, safety and wellbeing policies and initiatives being introduced into organisations to benefit the employee, not least because the associated costs are met by the employer. So this begs the question, what exactly are the benefits for the employer?

It is the right thing to do? (business ethics)

Creating a healthy workplace that does no harm to physical and mental health is a moral imperative. Media interest in poor business practice has not gone unnoticed by the public and has provided weight to the message that some employers creates business behaviours that cause real suffering to employees and their families.

It’s worth noting that research suggests that 83% of the British public take account of a company’s approach to corporate social responsibility when deciding what services or products to buy. Furthermore there is a belief that in the future demonstrating social responsibility will be no different than a business being mindful of its environmental impact.

It is the smart thing to do? (economic business case)

Research has clearly linked wellbeing at work with innovation, productivity, creatively, quality and reliability and ultimately to levels of growth at a national level. In other words how we are treated at work and the nature of the work we do affects our wellbeing and our levels of performance, which can be the difference between success or failure for a business.

Employers who ignore the health and wellbeing of their employees do so at their peril. Britain is the worst in Europe for obesity and has a relatively large population of smokers and those whose health is being harmed by excessive alcohol consumption. According to the Office of National Statistics one in three adults suffer from longstanding illness, with over 70% of these caused by muscular skeletal disorders, circulatory disease and mental ill health.

The financial cost to businesses in terms of sickness absence is significant as is the impact on the UK workforce, with one in six deaths occurring while people are still of working age.
Employers have a vital role to play in managing health at work and this can be achieved by promoting policies and behaviours which support good work and engagement, which in turn will reduce attrition rates.
What does wellbeing look like in practice?

Over the last three years, we have been developing our wellbeing strategy and approach at Yorkshire Water. During this time we have seen our sickness absence rates fall from 3.79 days per employee to 2.6 which generated a saving of £800,000 in 16 months.

How did we achieve this?

• We reviewed our sickness absence policy so that initial intervention by managers and occupational health once an employee was off work sick occurred much earlier. To embed the policy change we trained all of our managers and involved our Trade Union colleagues in the process; employees can also refer themselves to occupational health.

• We developed a rehabilitation programme so that employees off work with more significant illness could be supported back into work in an appropriate and timely manner.

• We studied our management information and identified that in line with national trends our greatest cause of ill health was muscular skeletal disorder and stress/mental health issues. In response to this we introduced fast track physiotherapy and educational back care classes.

• We also offer all of our employees mental health first aid training and we introduced a stress policy that requires every manager to undertake a stress risk assessment with their team.

• We refer our employees for counselling and use therapists from numerous specialisms to support our employees; we also refer some of our employees with more complex mental health problems to a consultant psychiatrist.

• We have set up a self help depression group, a disability group and we have a wellbeing page on our company intranet that directs employees to a variety of organisations that can help them with the problems of everyday life, for example debt counselling.

• Our latest initiative has been to pilot a physiotherapy intervention with a group of older workers (50+). They all had an individual functional capacity assessment with a physiotherapist to determine their muscular skeletal health, following which they were given a set of bespoke exercises that they carried out on a weekly basis with the physiotherapist. In some cases treatments such as acupuncture were carried out in conjunction with the exercise. The pilot took place over an eight week period at the end of which they were re-evaluated. Feedback from the participants has been outstanding with nearly all of them subjectively reporting an improvement in their health and most importantly feeling more confident and self aware in terms of caring for their muscular skeletal health going forward.

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