How companies can intervene to transform workplace health
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Screening programmes show prevention is better than cure
Volvo, famous for its role in increasing driver safety with the introduction of the three-point seat belt in 1959, is trying to apply the same ethic to improving the health of its workforce. Since last year, the company’s UK arm has been offering regular health screening for its employees, including checks for common cancers as well as comprehensive physical assessments for management.
“There are two ways of minimising the impact of an accident,” says Simon Eade, human resources manager at Volvo Cars UK. First, he says, there is preventing the accident in the first place and, second, minimising the impact after the accident has occurred. “Health checks are like preventative safety to avoid people having accidents,” he says.
Volvo introduced its programme after a long-serving member of the team at the company’s headquarters in Maidenhead, south-east England, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived the scare, but the incident highlighted how important health checks can be.
Putting an exact number on the direct benefits of health screening is difficult, not least because its positive effects are hard to distinguish from those resulting from other health initiatives, but those who are monitoring such programmes say the benefits are evident.
“We see through our own engagement surveys that a fit and healthy workforce is an engaged workforce that is more innovative, more creative, and is going to deliver better outcomes for your clients,” says Tony Horan, head of human capital and diversity at Accenture UK, the consultancy, which offers health assessments to its employees every five years.
Likewise, feedback from screening programmes can help employers to identify health issues across the company and in roles that have differing mental and physical challenges. “We get trends and analysis from the company that provides the health screenings so that we can target our [occupational health] education programmes,” says Hamish Watson, UK human resources director at Scottish Power. The UK utility company’s employees are split between office-based retail and customer service teams and a technical field operation.
67% of employees have had blood pressure screening in the past 12 months, but only 26% per cent can remember their blood pressure levelsSource: VitalityHealth/Rand Europe; Britain’s Healthiest Workplace
Pinpointing a problem can help to manage risk and improve performance. “Because of the kind of jobs that some of our people do, it’s hugely important to us,” says Watson, who says strong powers of concentration are particularly vital for some of Scottish Power’s employees. “That’s a major safety issue [in the field]. We want to make sure we’ve given them every opportunity to be as fit and as able as they can be.”
Companies’ understanding of their employees’ health on the job might soon be supplemented by information from wearable technology. Such devices could monitor anything, from heart rates to hormone levels, that may affect performance. However, their use raises ethical questions. Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, is conducting a trial of wearables on small groups of employees. Natasha Adams, people director for the UK and Ireland, says Tesco appreciates that there are questions of privacy and that “there will be fears around that”.
In the US, privacy advocacy groups have protested against proposed legislation on wellness programmes that would allow employers to collect their workers’ genetic information. But Adams says that, unlike in the US, where companies are allowed to impose financial penalties — such as higher health insurance premiums — on employees for not participating in wellbeing initiatives, Tesco’s programmes are voluntary. “We will understand more as we work through the trial,” she says. “But we have no ambition to monitor colleagues for anything other than to continue to support people being well at work.”
Healthy eating initiatives have to be made appetising
Timberland’s Victory Garden started as a small plot in the front yard of its headquarters in New Hampshire in 2008. Today, it consists of four large raised beds where, each season, green-fingered staff produce hundreds of kilos of fresh produce and flowers.
While giving employees at the US clothing manufacturer and retailer the opportunity to volunteer and spend time outdoors, the organic fruit and vegetables produced in the garden are also sold to staff — and in the company café — and the proceeds donated to a local charity.
“A large part of why VF Corporation [Timberland’s owner] chose to invest in wellness initiatives at both a global and brand level is the return on investment for the company and culture,” says Beth Reichl, human resources business partner at Timberland.
In the case of the Victory Garden, $15,000 has been raised for the local food bank since its first harvest. At the same time, staff have had the opportunity to use ingredients from the garden in quarterly cooking workshops with the company chef.
When it comes to healthy eating, education is crucial, employers such as Timberland argue. Dun & Bradstreet UK would seem to agree. The data and analytics company has offered nutrition workshops for the past two years, including talks from specialists. The sessions teach the company’s 500 UK-based staff how to use food “to influence how you’re feeling”.
“Part of our focus on nutrition is to show how you can make sure you feel properly fuelled so that you can be at your best when you need to be and, as you go through your day, how you can keep yourself topped up,” says Julian Prower, senior company officer at Dun & Bradstreet.
3.5 productive days a year are lost by employees with poor diets. Reducing fat intake to a healthy range reduces work impairment by 2.5 days per yearSource: VitalityHealth/Rand Europe; Britain’s Healthiest Workplace
In an area as personal as food habits, there is a risk of employers lecturing staff. “We haven’t gone down the road of saying, ‘You can’t eat this, don’t do that’,” says Prower. “We wanted to go down the route of saying, ‘Let us give you the knowledge and the insights, so that you can make the right choice for you’.”
Beyond giving staff a more detailed understanding of healthy eating, an increasing number of workplaces are offering employees more nutritious food options. At UK insurance services provider Phoenix Group, this has meant stocking a locally sourced menu — including a salad bar, fresh fish and chicken — at the restaurant in the company’s offices near Birmingham. Working with the local environmental health service, it promotes nutritional information and portion advice — for example, how long it would take to walk off the calories from a particular food.
Last year, when popular foods such as chips were taken off the menu on healthy eating days, staff complained, says Lucy Symonds, the company’s corporate responsibility manager. “This year when we took chips off, we offered alternatives such as sweet potato fries, which were positively received,” she says. “We are making sure what we offer is still appetising: ‘healthy’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bland’.”
Tailoring initiatives to staff needs is vital, says Liz Ellis, human resources director at the early-life nutrition business of French food group Danone. The company — which states that its mission is to bring “health through food to as many people as possible” — carried out a study that found a high percentage of people in the UK did not know their cholesterol levels, and indeed 90 per cent of its own employees did not know their levels either.
This prompted the company to launch its own healthy eating initiative by first offering free 30-minute health assessments to staff. Its trained nutritionists now offer bespoke eight-week healthy eating courses and encourage teams to dine together in the office.
“Before setting up your healthy eating initiative, try to get comprehensive insights into your workforce’s habits,” Ellis advises. “You need to understand what support they need and why.”
How a focus on physical fitness can stop illness in its tracks
During the run-up to a charity swim held by Adidas UK, one employee developed a feeling of butterflies. However, she confessed she had been having the uncomfortable sensation off and on for a while. “The minute we put her on the ECG to do her exercise stress testing, we discovered she had a heart problem,” recalls Tricia Kalloo, chief executive of Wellness International, a provider of occupational health and wellness services. “The doctors told her if she proceeded with the event, it might not have been a good outcome.”
The employee later had heart surgery to have stents inserted. Though she made a full recovery, early intervention was made possible by the health and wellbeing services put in place by Adidas’s partnership with Wellness International. The sportswear company has achieved particular success with its physical health interventions. “Adidas has developed the concept that physical activity is just a lifestyle,” says Kalloo.
It is 20 years since Adidas established its health and wellbeing centre at its head office in Stockport, north-west England. Performance and testing labs provide employees with health markers such as their VO2 max score, which measures oxygen consumption and gives an indication of improving fitness levels. Meanwhile, bespoke programmes tailored to each individual’s limitations ensure people of all fitness levels are engaged.
“We educate the individual. Because the wellness centre is on site, we build a level of trust. We work with employees in their comfort zones. If you’ve had past injuries, [we’ll] have you see a physiotherapist,” says Kalloo, explaining how access to facilities at work means employees are less likely to call in sick.
47% of employees over 55 do not take sufficient exercise. Employees of all ages can reduce work impairment by 3.2 days a year if they go from no exercise to 150 minutes per weekSource: VitalityHealth/Rand Europe; Britain’s Healthiest Workplace
Iris Worldwide has achieved similar success. The marketing agency network formed wellbeing policies that grew out of the recognition that having healthier employees means greater productivity.
Led by fitness director Rebecca Cox, Iris has reinforced the importance of personalised care. All staff have access to one-to-one consultations to help develop a lifestyle plan based on everything from their commute to sleep duration. “People can train in groups specific to their needs, whether it be a running class or back care; there’s a whole timetable of things,” says Cox.
The sessions give trainers at the company a better sense of other things taking place in employees’ lives, allowing them to take a more holistic approach in understanding what motivates individuals to exercise.
Nomura, the global investment bank, has been able to shrug off the banking sector’s poor image on work-life balance to present itself as a company that champions the health of its staff. Ian Edwards, programme director at private healthcare provider Nuffield Health who heads the wellness services at Nomura, has emphasised the need to find a true measure of health risk. By using predictive models of an employee’s health, Nomura was able to save £3m on presenteeism — the cost to a company of an employee turning up for work but being unproductive — over two years, from 2015 to 2016. The company runs a cycle scheme used by 150 staff each day and has an integrated fitness and medical centre.
About half of its workforce are active members of the centre, Edwards says. “We’ve been focused on taking a proactive rather than reactive approach,” he says.
All three companies base their provision on the notion that there is no such thing as not having enough time to exercise. Iris promotes the idea of short, high-intensity workouts to demonstrate this. “You don’t need an hour at the end of the day to work out,” says Cox.
Ending the stigma around mental health begins at the top
When international law firm Gowling WLG marked Britain’s Mental Health Awareness Week in May last year with a series of events in its UK offices, one employee told organisers he had been reluctant to attend — in case doing so gave the impression that he himself had a mental health problem.
“Our hearts sank when we heard that sort of feedback,” says Lorna Gavin, head of diversity, inclusion and corporate responsibility at the 3,500-strong firm. “Because that was the living embodiment of the stigma [around mental health]. That’s what told us we needed to break the stigma down.”
For employers, raising awareness of mental wellbeing — and supporting staff who suffer from ill health — requires both sensitivity and openness. The potential benefits are compelling: in the UK, nearly 11.5 per cent of sickness absence in 2016 was mental health-related, according to the Office for National Statistics, while the OECD puts the cost of mental-ill health in the UK at some 4.5 per cent of GDP through lost working days, lower productivity and increased healthcare spending.
For Gavin, the employee’s comments reinforced her belief that senior figures, in particular board members, need to be a visible part of any workplace mental health initiative to lend it credence and ensure other staff feel comfortable participating. This year, she made sure senior staff promoted the programme organised in support of Mental Health Awareness Week and found that it was quickly oversubscribed.
There is growing recognition globally of the psychological and social costs of mental ill health. This momentum has shifted employees’ expectations, says Ed Thurman, managing director of financial institutions at the UK’s Lloyds Banking Group. “Ten or 15 years ago, we were handing out subsidised gym memberships to keep people physically fit,” he says. “Today, [our graduate population] expect to be looked after in terms of overall wellbeing. They expect a package.”
He says companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape these packages according to the needs of their teams. “What works for our London trading floor might not work for an operations centre out in Reading [south-east England] because they have different profiles in terms of people and working patterns.”
Many companies offer employee assistance programmes to help with personal or work-related problems, often including occupational health support, private medical insurance that covers wellbeing or counselling, and even massages. Some organisations also train staff to recognise when colleagues have a problem and how to manage that.
33 productive days are lost per year to moderate to severe depression by the 5.6% of employees who suffer from it. They can reduce their work impairment by 31 days if they no longer suffer from depressionSource: VitalityHealth/Rand Europe; Britain’s Healthiest Workplace
But employers should also fashion “proactive” and preventative interventions on top of their “reactive” programmes, says Philip Gibbs, director of organisation and people analytics at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical group. “Given today’s culture of back-to-back meetings, emails throughout the day and phones next to the beds, employees need a period of ‘recovery’ and this is what we want to push,” he says, citing recent legislation in France that allows employees to ignore their work email after they leave the office.
He points to “Time for a Moment”, GSK’s new online course, which teaches participants mindfulness and one-minute meditation techniques. “It’s about how to ensure sustainable performance,” he says.
Indeed, targeted campaigns can be effective, many employers argue. Gowling WLG introduced an initiative recently around domestic violence and mental health that included training “domestic violence champions” to spot the signs and provide initial support. However, “the biggest difference came from putting posters on the back of loo doors”, Gavin says. These outlined different domestic violence scenarios with the strapline “Help is closer than you think”. More than a dozen people came forward from every level of the organisation and were able to get help.
“It’s practical, tactical things as much as it is big rhetoric coming from the organisation,” says Thurman.
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