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January 26, 2016

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Wellness in the workplace – practice what you preach

By Kate Cook

As the health and safety sphere starts to embrace the health bit in the title,  companies are keen to introduce  wellness programmes that are going to make a difference to both the staff and the company.

Corporate Wellness programmes have long been adopted in the US where the State has not traditionally picked up the tab for poor health.  Corporate Wellness Magazine has estimated that for every US$1 spent on such programmes there is a saving to the company of US$6 in associated health care costs.

Programmes and initiatives have long been a part of the US working landscape but why have such programmes been slow to be adopted here in the UK?  Maybe it is because the nation’s health has long been considered the job of the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK and therefore companies have not felt it to be the responsibility of the individual companies. Perhaps the NHS should be re-named the National Sick Service – it doesn’t look after health, but instead it alleviates acute problems when someone is already ill.

Many UK companies realise that without their individual organisation stepping up and managing preventative health within their own backyard,  in less than 10 years time the UK workforce will not be fit for purpose, as obesity and other critical health conditions make their people unfit for work.

With the government not keen to intervene lest they upset employment opportunity in the food industry (which by and large is at the root cause of the explosion of the waistline since the 80’s), the mantle has been passed to employers to take on the leadership role and make a difference to our nation’s health.

This is a worthy sentiment even if wellness is being taken on for self-serving ends (more engaged, happier, and healthier workforce) but often a corporate desire to get a wellness programme in place is not thought out sufficiently strategically and its messages are passed down Chinese whisper style to those who actually have to implement it.

The actual reason for adopting a wellness programme is simply not thought through.  Is it to make the company look good?  Is it just to be seen by the employees as nice guys?  Or is it to make a strategic difference – in which case why aren’t the objectives audited and then measured for outcome?

Once this often woolly message (even if a mission statement has been crafted around what the company thinks it ought to be doing and saying) is passed down the ranks to the managers responsible there is often a block.  Managers already stressed and over worked with the legislative requirements see the wellness piece as a bit fluffy – it wasn’t measured so the extent of any problem is unknown – therefore fluffy might be a fair accusation.

The managers, already stressed out by the demands of the job, and implementing messages from further up the chain of command are often not the glowing image of health necessary in order to inspire their people to follow them.  Workload and stress might have taken a toll on both health and waistline.

Perhaps coping strategies have crept in like having a few swift pints after work and forget about that exercise programme.  The Great British pride in contra-health food can be a factor  –  some Brits feel that health obsession is a bit “continental”  – all those over fastidious Health Boot camps,  bits of rabbit food, nibbling on muesli – it’s so well, un-British.

It is only leadership that can save the well-intentioned wellness programme and make it truly effective. When leaders are engaged, mountains can be moved.  Proper strategy is implemented, wellness audits taken, targets set and programmes constructed according to need.  Then, managers can be inspired to look after their own health and wellness so that they lead the charge into a land of productivity and engagement because they have a foundation of wellbeing and health that they themselves believe in.


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