Employees are facing an increasingly challenging working environment, according to the annual Aviva Health of the Workplace report, which canvasses the views of employers and their staff on issues relating to workplace wellbeing.

Two in five (41%) employees say they’ve too much work to do, with nearly a third (30%) now having to work longer hours. Not surprisingly, just under a quarter (23%) admit that they feel tired all the time and a fifth of workers say that the current climate is making them feel more stressed and under pressure.

Despite this situation, the challenging environment appears to be having some positive effects on the UK’s workforce; with many taking control of the one thing they can help influence – their own health.

Individuals are becoming healthier
Far fewer employees are adopting unhealthy behaviours despite feeling under pressure. Only 19% of employees say that they eat unhealthily to help them deal with stress compared to 34% in Aviva’s 2009 research. Similarly, just 11% feel that they smoke more – a fall of seven percentage points from the previous study.

Moreover, nearly half (47%) exercise at least once a week on average, while – perhaps surprisingly – 38% don’t drink at all during the week. A further 17% are making a concerted effort not to drink during weekdays. Just 7% feel that they smoke too much.

Employers are recognising the importance of a healthy workforce
Aviva’s research also reveals that many of the UK’s employers are taking a more responsible approach to the health of their workforce. Just under half (47%) of business leaders say that the impact of the recession has made them realise the importance of looking after staff health and wellbeing.

Three in five (63%) business leaders now recognise that health has a direct effect on productivity – a rise of ten percentage points from Aviva’s previous Health of the Workplace study. This is a view shared by over three quarters of employees (78%).

Moreover, the future looks bright. A third (35%) of UK bosses say they’d like to further improve staff motivation and morale over the coming year and a fifth want to improve staff wellbeing.

To achieve this, around a third (31%) of business leaders aim to encourage a better work/life balance and around a fifth (18%) plan to increase spending on health-related benefits. This could be money well spent considering that nearly half (47%) of workers believe that a good work/life balance is key to their workplace happiness and three in five employees say they’d work harder for an employer that looks after their health.

Employers want value for money
Not surprisingly, return on investment (ROI) remains a key priority for employers, with over half (54%) saying they’d invest more in health-related benefits if they could see a tangible ROI. Worryingly though, the research reveals that many employers pay little regard to the options which will offer the most value to their business when choosing which benefits to purchase.

Over a quarter (29%) say they offer the same benefits ‘they’ve always offered.’ Just 18% say they offer the benefits their staff want, and even fewer (8%) say they make changes to their benefits to help combat the key causes of sickness absence in their business.

Dr Doug Wright, head of clinical development, Aviva UK Health says:

“It’s great to see employees are taking control of their health and looking after themselves. It’s also encouraging that many employers are taking more responsibility for the health of their workforce as they recognise how it directly impacts on productivity.

“However, employers need to be sure that they are spending their money wisely by using invaluable insight – such as their sickness absence data – to help them understand which benefits will best meet their companies’ specific needs. This will not only help benefit staff health, but could also have a positive effect on the bottom line.”