Thought leaders: Academic insights: Employee health needs a proper strategy

Healthcare benefits have a wide role to play in employee wellbeing, says Stephen Bevan

For almost 20 years, I have been researching workforce health and wellbeing. I have looked at the causes, costs and consequences of sickness absence from work, patterns and trends in workplace health, and the management practices most likely to improve wellbeing. During this time, and especially in recent years, I have become concerned by three things.

First, the size of the problem and the likelihood that it will get worse. As UK workers age in the next 20 years or so, their health and wellbeing is likely to deteriorate further, with almost 15 million more developing some kind of chronic or long-term health condition. Dame Carol Black has put the cost of ill-health in the workforce at about £100 billion a year – equivalent to the annual NHS budget or the gross domestic product of Portugal. Certainly enough to bail out a couple of banks.

Second is the stubborn tendency of too many employers to focus on the symptoms of ill health at work. Absence from work, for many managers, is an aspect of employee behaviour that needs to be controlled. This results in attendance management policies and practices that dictate when and how absences should be reported, that return-to-work interviews should be conducted, and when absence trigger points have been violated. But absence ‘control’ is not enough. In enlightened organisations, occupational health advice might be sought to help manage return to work or rehabilitation. In others, health and wellbeing strategies encourage staff to eat healthily, to take exercise or to quit smoking – addressing lifestyle and behavioural issues among employees who want to make changes to their health.

Dealing with the underlying causes of ill health can be much more complex, but also more successful and sustainable. It is more complicated because it is about how work is organised, how jobs are designed and how people are managed at work. Each of these factors is more to do with the fabric of organisational culture or the style of management being adopted, the approach to managing change or the climate of employee relations. Unfortunately, few organisations see these as wellbeing issues at all.

The third issue is the role of healthcare benefits. I was recently shown the healthcare benefits package of a major employer. It was impressively presented as part of its health and wellbeing strategy and offered generous benefits to staff and their families, which I am sure were both competitive and highly valued. When I asked what impact these benefits had on sickness absence, productivity or customer service, nobody could answer. Indeed, the company did not even keep data on sickness absence, but could tell me the take-up of subsidised gym membership and how the benefits compared to those of their main rivals.

Then I ‘got real’. It occurred to me that, for many employers, healthcare benefits are really about attracting and retaining staff and that it was naive of me to expect them to have anything much to do with workplace health and wellbeing. However, my concern here is that too many employers convince themselves that healthcare benefits can have a major impact on employee health and that they do not need to be so concerned with prevention, early intervention or rehabilitation.

Of course, a healthier workforce could bring with it a range of business, economic and social benefits. Productivity would improve, as would resilience, creativity and customer service. Indeed, the advantages of investing in the health of the workforce are becoming ever more apparent. Yet, despite all this evidence, it is disappointing that many employers still delude themselves that gym membership and lettuce in the canteen adds up to a health and wellbeing strategy.

Stephen Bevan is managing director of The Work Foundation


Healthy work: challenges and opportunities to 2030, Vaughan-Jones H and Barham L, Bupa (2009)

Working for a healthier tomorrow, Black C, TSO (2008)

The business case for employee health and wellbeing, Bevan S, Investors in People (2010)

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