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When Shaun Davis moved to Royal Mail from the construction industry four years ago, he noticed a similarity between the two. As with building work, the manual nature of most postal jobs meant managers concentrated on preventing accidents and dealing with physical ailments — the emphasis was on safety rather than workplace health.

“There was a real conscious push around safety, but health and wellness was a late bloomer,” he says. More lately, he adds, on his experience at Royal Mail, “we’ve really focused on health and wellbeing”.

“It helps not only improve attendance at work but also employee engagement. With 142,000 staff, we have a real chance to educate and inform the broader population.”

Mr Davis, who is group director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability, has overseen new programmes including “Feeling First Class” to discuss mental health at Royal Mail. He says the result has been improvements in attendance at work and general wellbeing as assessed by employees themselves.

In the UK and many countries around the world, policymakers and employers from the public, private and non-profit sectors are becoming more sensitive to the issues of workplace health. With so many people spending so much time at work, better physical, mental and social wellbeing in their jobs improves lives.

Specialists argue that, for employers, good programmes can help recruitment, retention of staff and productivity. For society, better prevention and support is also a more practical and efficient way to tackle ill health than overburdening the healthcare system or ill-equipped families at home.

Louise Ashton, workwell director at Business in the Community, says: “I’ve seen a massive shift since we launched our wellbeing campaign in 2007. This whole agenda was a nice-to-have — a PR bolt-on. Since then, businesses have really woken up to the inextricable linkage between wellbeing and engagement to drive sustainable performance.”

Mental health has become a particular focus. Poppy Jaman, head of the charity Mental Health First Aid and programme director at the City Mental Health Alliance, which includes leading banks and law firms, says: “We’re at a tipping point. Employers see they are losing talent and not attracting as many as they used to. There is a moral obligation to support people. And we’ve had high profile cases of people going off sick and of suicides. The reality is just so present that it cannot be ignored.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, agrees: “When Britain was a manufacturing economy, musculoskeletal problems like back pain were the biggest issue. Now it’s a service- and knowledge-based economy, mental health is the leading cause of sickness.”

He has observed growing demand for his advice, including wellbeing audits. “Employers are interested not because it’s a soft and fuzzy way to help employees. People who turn up to work ill are not delivering any added value and talent retention is a big driver. One human resources director told me ‘we are so mean and lean, we can’t afford to lose people’.”

Barclays is among those employers that have introduced a range of health measures in recent years, including, in the bank’s case, getting staff to compete over exercise and tackle sedentary lifestyles. It has launched the “This is Me” campaign, designed to de-stigmatise mental health and encourage staff to talk openly about their conditions, as well as other aspects of their lives.

Mark McLane, head of global diversity at the bank, says: “It has had a positive impact across multiple measures including engagement and absenteeism. But it’s not about a programme, it’s about embedding wellness. The critical component is that it’s colleague-led, not human resource-driven. There is not one driving factor other than our colleagues wanting to push and us working to address their needs.”

That echoes a broader view that wellness is complex and not simply a matter of identifying “off the shelf” solutions. It requires strong support from the top of the organisation combined with managerial support throughout, with a lead taken from employees themselves.

Prof Cooper says: “To me, the biggest thing is the need to select line managers for their interpersonal skills. Individual cultures are created by managers. Many provide unmanageable workloads, impose long hours, unrealistic deadlines and manage by fault-finding rather than praise.”

Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer at BT, who has recently been attending an international seminar with 50 specialists on workplace health in Austria, says: “People always want a magic bullet, but there isn’t one. It’s about primary prevention of harm, early secondary intervention to help and tertiary rehabilitation to support those who are ill.”

What seems clear is the need for far more discussion, data and sharing of experiences around the world: in the structure of different workplace health programmes, how widely they have been adopted and what their effects have been on employees, employers and society alike. That explains efforts such as Vitality’s assessment of Britain’s healthiest workplaces.

With health services increasingly overburdened, an ageing and growing population, a rising burden of chronic diseases and the length of time people spend in workplaces of different sorts, to do otherwise risks being a missed opportunity with enormous future costs.

The FT is media partner of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, which encourages employers of all sorts to share information on wellness programmes as part of a wider initiative to study and share their impact.

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