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Employees at BP’s UK operations may not have noticed, but their diets are getting healthier. Starting last year, the oil major’s chief medical officer, Richard Heron, has been quietly reducing salt and calories in meals in the staff canteens.

This is part of a wider project that Dr Heron has spearheaded: to create a healthier workforce by gathering data on employees’ lifestyles and encouraging them to exercise more and eat better, via targeted incentive schemes.

BP’s actions are not entirely altruistic. There are clear financial benefits for companies that focus on staff well-being. Sick leave and working while unwell costs companies 7.8 per cent of their yearly wage bill on average, according to a study of 82 British businesses conducted by Cambridge university, think-tank Rand Europe and PruHealth, the health insurer.

The situation is worsening. The study, completed this year, found that nearly two-thirds of the 82 companies’ 250,000 employees have habits that put them at risk of illness.

“Absence rates and health insurance are business costs,” says Dr Heron, who is also president of Britain’s Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management. “Also, companies that demonstrate they care [about staff] see higher levels of engagement, better retention rates, less absenteeism and more alignment with company values.”

Shareholders should be aware of this issue too, says Greg Levine, director of corporate vitality at PruHealth.

“At some stage,” he says, “I hope to see companies discussing their wellness credentials in their annual reports.”

According to Wolfgang Seidl, partner at Mercer, healthcare costs constitute up to 10 per cent of payroll at US companies and 3.9 per cent in Europe.

PA Consulting, a management consultancy, has taken the idea of gathering employees’ health data one step further. The company has developed what it calls a “healthcare patch”, a monitor the size of a 10 pence piece and resembling a plaster that doctors or employers can ask individuals to wear. The patch then monitors heartbeat, body temperature, blood oxygen levels and lung functions.

PA intends to commercialise the product for use in the pharmaceutical and medical industries, and to ask its own staff to wear patches so their statistics can be accessed by the company.

“Many of our people use wearable devices already,” says Emma Hardaker-Jones, global head of human resources at PA. “As I walk around the office I see 30-40 per cent of people are using [them] to track things like their energy levels, their sleep.”

When asked if being asked to wear the patch may be viewed as intrusive, Ms Hardaker-Jones says: “We are an employee-owned business, so if we can educate people about the benefits to them of these data, that they could help us save costs, this is a positive opt-in.”

Dr Heron says 85 per cent of BP’s UK staff have volunteered to take part in health checks. From analysing anonymous data, he realised that more than half the workforce “had an opportunity to improve their weight”, he says.

Dr Heron then started pilot schemes such as offering weight reduction counselling to staff whose body mass index is above 25, the NHS criterion for considering someone overweight. It seems to be working. “We’ve seen some early indications at about six to 12 months of sustained loss in weight,” he says.

Dr Heron has also ensured that BP’s staff canteens encourage employees to choose healthier options. For example, he says, if someone buys nine low-calorie meals in a row, they get the 10th free.

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Costs of insuring a healthier workforce

Tony Powis, the chief executive of employee benefits at insurance broker Willis, says insurers can sometimes offer better deals to companies whose staff are in good health.

He says: “Insurers look favourably on employers that adopt a risk management strategy on wellness in the workplace.”

There is no one-size-fits-all way to do this, he adds, explaining: “The wellness strategy needs to be identifiable by industry sector. For example, if you look at banks, the big issue is workplace stress.”

When companies approach an insurer to claim they have improved employee health, Mr Powis suggests, they must provide data to demonstrate not only that their staff’s diet and health have improved, but also that they are controlling absences and have early intervention programmes to manage lifestyle-related diseases.

US companies are “leading the pack” in this regard, says Mr Powis. “What you see a lot of is obesity management, for example healthy food choices with a cheaper price tag, organised weight loss clubs and competitions, walking clubs.”

Willis calculates that companies that properly manage absence will save 5-10 per cent on income protection policies. He adds that the ability to present data showing that employees are becoming healthier will be treated favourably by private medical insurers, who may offer a 5 per cent discount.

Mr Powis adds that employers should not forget that healthier staff will make fewer insurance claims, leading to a saving in premiums over time.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.