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March 3, 2010

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Business needs more proof before committing to health initiatives

Looking after people’s health and well-being via the workplace is moving up the business agenda but more evidence of its positive effects is necessary if employers are to embrace it fully.

This was the conclusion of a high-level debate held earlier this week, which posed the question: is business sleeping on the job when it comes to improving the nation’s health? A panel of well-known experts discussed if and how business is contributing to reducing health costs for the individual, the taxpayer and society.

The event was organised by Unilever UK and Ireland to coincide with the launch of an independent report on the global food, home and personal-care products supplier’s own health initiative, Fit Business.

The company’s vice-president of human resources, Alan Walters (left, in the picture), said business pressure is crucial to improving health, adding that employers need to come up with “practical and implementable solutions to the challenge without impacting on public spending”.

Interim chief executive of the King’s Fund, Anna Dixon, agreed that there is definitely more that business can do. She said: “Health is often seen as a fringe benefit rather than a core business benefit. Employers need to wake up and take it seriously as a universal benefit – for all, and not just the few.”

Dame Carol Black (right, in the picture), the national director for health and work, claimed many businesses are taking the issue seriously and the challenge now is to identify the barriers that are preventing others from doing likewise. She explained: “Many don’t understand the relationship between good health and good work, and say that the evidence base is not there. So we need to be able to make the business case.”

Businesses that are taking the lead in this area include Royal Mail, BT and Unilever itself, which is about to roll out the Fit Business initiative to all 17 of its sites in the UK and Ireland following a successful pilot last year at its two largest sites – in Leatherhead, Surrey and Port Sunlight on the Wirral. The initiative brought together the company’s nutrition expertise, brand-marketing knowledge and occupational-health capabilities to provide an environment in which its employees could make healthy lifestyle choices.

An independent evaluation of the initiative carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the provision of free onsite health checks, graphic nutritional information in employee restaurants, and on and offsite gym facilities did have a measurable impact on the 1600, or so employees who took part. There was a 26-per-cent decrease in factory workers’ weight, 52 per cent of office workers said they are now eating more healthily, and 46 per cent of office workers said they had changed their diet and were sticking to it.

Explained Alan Walters: “The choice was the employees’ and we tried to create an environment in which it was easy for them to make those choices. People don’t like to be preached at, so we focused on making things more accessible and easily communicable to them.”

Senior policy officer at the TUC for health and safety, Hugh Robertson, agreed that working in partnership with staff on issues like health improvement is key. He said: “Too many employers do it in a patronising way. It must be positive and not negative. Addressing obesity – or just being overweight – as ‘an issue’ can stigmatise some people. There is always a problem with introducing moral elements into the workplace, but health is a positive function and most initiatives in this area will be welcomed by the workforce.”

Richard Donkin, a Financial Times columnist and author of a number of books on work and the workplace, echoed Dame Carol Black by emphasising that building an evidence base is crucial if more employers are to follow Unilever’s example. He suggested that as companies are now moving more and more towards performance measurement, “health should be included as part of this”.

He continued: “There are obvious bottom-line incentives – for example, through reducing absenteeism – but it’s important not to focus on individuals. We need to focus on the workplace as a whole, and then think about how to target the actual interventions.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Ben Wilmott argued that good-quality people management is equally important to improving workplace well-being, and that the role of the line manager is key. He added: “A good line manager is crucial to making good work come alive, and in terms of employee engagement. If you are managed effectively you are more likely to be able to deal with crises outside work, and more likely to be able to balance the competing pressures we are all under.

“Therefore, the role of the line manager needs much greater focus if we are to achieve a step-change in well-being.”

The panel agreed that small and medium-sized business are the biggest challenge but was less united on the question of whether or not offering them incentives is the right approach. Ben Wilmott said the Government should look at incentivising small-business owners via, for example, access to occupational health services, National Insurance reductions, and other tax breaks. But Anna Dixon argued that the taxpayer should not have to “bear the brunt”.

She was backed up by Dr Steve Boorman, chief medical advisor to the Royal Mail Group, who reviewed health and well-being in the NHS for the Government last year. Speaking from the audience, he said: “It shouldn’t be about incentives but about removing disincentives. For instance, why is it currently cheaper to provide physiotherapy services after somebody goes off sick, rather than before? Because the latter is taxed as a benefit-in-kind.”

The TUC’s Hugh Robertson agreed, saying: “It’s better to give people opportunities, a better work-life balance, and to look at work organisation so that we can give people the choice and the tools. All of this is better than incentives.”

Yesterday (Wednesday) the TUC published the latest in its series of ‘Touchstone Extra’ reports, In sickness and in health? which challenges the Government and employers to ensure that workplaces actively promote good health and well-being through “good work”.

Factors that contribute to a better working environment, says the TUC, include being in control of workload, good health and safety standards, equality and fair treatment, and – in agreement with the CIPD – good-quality line managers.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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