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July 28, 2015

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Workplace wellbeing – it’s time for business to take an interest

person-731492_640By Dr Chris Tomkins, Head of Proactive Health, AXA PPP healthcare

Workplace wellbeing is a concept which has developed dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. Twenty years ago, workforce health was not very high on the boardroom agenda but, perhaps triggered by the recession and credit crunch, there has been a recent explosion of interest in the subject. But what is workplace wellbeing and why should business leaders and their advisors be sitting up and taking notice?

There’s more to understanding wellbeing at work than simply knowing what makes employees happy. Rather, think of it as a state of being affected by a plethora of physical, psychological and social drivers – the so-called biopsychosocial axis. It might, for example, be affected by financial and relationship problems, which can lead to stress, anxiety or even depression, or by an ailment that adversely affects an employee’s mobility. Whatever the cause, the consequences of poor employee wellbeing can be calamitous for a business, with considerable direct and indirect costs arising from sickness absence and presenteeism (where an employee attends work when unwell and performs sub-optimally). So what should employers be on the lookout for?

Let’s get physical

While some may feel it’s not their place to lecture employees on their lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, factors such as these can significantly affect employee health and, in turn, performance and productivity. High blood pressure is, for example, associate 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.1

Poor health can adversely affect a multitude of factors such as mental health and acuity, energy levels, endurance, resilience and recovery times. Sedentary employees who eat badly are more at risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and musculoskeletal problems, which can, in turn, impair their performance and productivity.

We know from our studies of employees of our corporate clients that those aged 55 and over with six or more health risks (obesity, poor sleep, alcohol consumption, high blood pressure, diabetes, for example) leave the workforce sooner than do their healthier counterparts. It follows that employers would be wise to encourage and support employees to safeguard their health if they wish to remain valued, productive members of the workforce.

To address physical inactivity, businesses can introduce subtle changes or programmes such as cycle to work schemes. Other ways to encourage greater physical activity include making adaptations to building design or facilities. Having a positive, supportive workplace culture – led form the top – is also important. One that encourages employees to take their lunchtime breaks and not persistently work beyond their contracted hours. I also encourage employers to focus more on employee performance of output rather than on hours worked as this may help to encourage employees – confident in the knowledge that they are on top of their workload – to stop for a lunchtime break and even get out for a walk.

Psychological wellbeing

While physical wellbeing is often plain to see, psychological or mental wellbeing can be harder to discern. Its importance should not be underestimated, however, as, according to the ONS report Psychiatric morbidity among adults living in private households, around one in four adults in Britain experiences mental ill health at any one time – leaving few if any workplaces in Britain immune to its effects.

We also know from our own research that mental health is an issue that both employers and employees struggle to contend with. Only 39 per cent of the employees whom we surveyed in February of this year said that they would feel comfortable telling their employers the truth about needing time off work for stress, anxiety or depression – a telling indictment of the fear and stigma that many employees feel about their mental health and testament to the enormity of the challenge facing employers to address it.

But, when it comes to breaking down the stigma associated with mental health, there is no one size fits all approach. Different employees in different organisations will respond more positively to their employer’s support than others. A ‘grass roots’ approach is often needed – one where employers actively engage with employees to identify and introduce the kind of support employees truly value. Approaches that support mental wellbeing can include introduction of flexible working, encouraging employees to take regular daily breaks (and their holidays), monitoring and managing persistent working overtime, and, where practicable, even having email blackouts out of office hours. Occupational health support and providing access to confidential personal counselling from employee assistance programmes can also go long way to maintaining a mentally healthy workplace.

Whatever the approach, employers that keep employee wellbeing top of mind and do their utmost to support their people are likely to be rewarded by a workforce that’s loyal, committed and engaged – and that can be counted on to perform to the best of its ability.

1. High-normal blood pressure is associated with poor cognitive performance. By Stefan Knecht, Heike Wersching, Hubertus Lohmann, Maximilian Bruchmann, Thomas Duning, Rainer Dziewas, Klaus Berger and E Bernd Ringelstein. Hypertension. 2008; 51: 663-668:

Dr Chris Tomkins AXA PPP healthcare-1Dr Chris Tomkins is Head of Proactive Health for AXA PPP healthcare. He leads AXA PPP healthcare’s Proactive Health services – a ground-breaking approach to engaging populations and driving health behaviour change in a manner that is both inclusive and cost effective. His team consists of a unique combination of health experts, technologists and experienced e-commerce specialists.  Chris himself combines both business experience with his doctorate in molecular biology from Oxford University, giving him an understanding of and passion for solutions against the diverse range of risks created by modern lifestyles, including challenges such as diabetes and hypertension.

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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Jonathan Scopes
Jonathan Scopes
8 years ago

Chris, interesting as ever. Don’t you wear a cycle helmet?

Raquel Baetz
Raquel Baetz
8 years ago

Hi Chris, thanks for your article. After spending many years working long hours hunched over a laptop with no info about good workstation set up and the importance of taking breaks, I suffered a debilitating repetitive strain injury. The pain was so bad at one point that I loss the full use of my hands. It took a long time to repair the damage to both my physical and mental health. Today, I want to help others avoid the situation I got myself into which is why I do workstation assessments to show people how they can prevent musculoskeletal pain… Read more »

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8 years ago

[…] Workplace wellbeing – it’s time for business to take an interest – Let’s get physical While some may feel it’s not their place to lecture employees on their lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise … resilience and recovery times. Sedentary employees who eat badly are more at … […]