Stephen Bevan: How can employers have a tangible impact on employee health?

Does an employer offer health benefits to its employees because it wants to improve their health, or because it wants to attract, motivate and retain talent? The answer can, quite legitimately, be ‘both’, of course.

Among those organisations that do offer health benefits, do they know how many employees take them up each year, and the precise impact these have on sickness absence or productivity, compared with offering no health benefits at all? This is a slightly trickier question, but if an employer can say ‘yes’ to the first part and ‘no’ to the second, it is at least in the majority.

The truth is, employers are more likely to be offering these benefits as a recruitment and retention ‘perk’ than in the expectation that they will improve employee health in any discernible way. There is no shame in this, but it would be better if we were honest about it. So, why does any of this matter?

Having seen many attempts by large and small employers to use gym memberships, extra lettuce in the canteen and Indian head massages to amount to a workplace health strategy, my conclusion is that offering health benefits helps employers compete for talent, but often makes little difference to employee health, absence or productivity. In the grand scheme of things, though, it is the improvements in workforce health that the UK PLC needs most urgently.

According to some calculations, by 2030, about 40% of the UK workforce will have at least one work-limiting chronic illness. The bulk of the health burden among working-age people will continue to be shared between mental illnesses and musculo-skeletal disorders. Other conditions, such as cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, will also play a part in impairing the productive capacity of the future workforce.

All of this must be considered against the background of a number of familiar demographic trends, such as ageing. Life expectancy at age 65 for men and women now exceeds 25 years; it is inevitable that there will be many more older people, who are, of course, more susceptible to chronic illness, remaining in work beyond state pension age.

There is a clear case for increased employer investment in workplace health: a healthy workforce is more likely to be resourceful, productive, innovative, motivated, agile,
loyal and have improved attendance. So, if employers want to target resources and
energy on creating healthier workplaces, beyond what they offer as recruitment and retention-boosting perks, where should they put their money?

Looking at the interventions employers are currently implementing, the most
common include: flexible and part-time working; employee assistance programmes (EAPs); healthy eating initiatives; subsidised gym membership; support for increased physical activity, such as fun runs or pedometer challenges; stress management programmes; access to occupational health support; and training for line managers in mental illness symptoms and referral.

Research looking at which of these interventions are most effective is, in general, disappointingly inconclusive. One might be surprised to learn, for example, that giving flu jabs to staff makes no difference to sickness absence, and training employees as mental health first aiders has no measurable effect on absence rates or productivity.

Where the evidence is stronger, it tells us that early intervention and referral to occupational health or an EAP can be decisive. Effective and empathic line management, from individuals who can provide work and workplace accommodations, is also beneficial. So, too, is a well-planned package of vocational rehabilitation.

Promoting and supporting better lifestyle habits can only ever be one, relatively minor, element of a more holistic, preventative, culturally challenging and sustainable approach to delivering physically and psychologically healthy workplaces, in which staff can thrive and give full expression to both their creative energy and talents.

My worry is that, by pretending that health benefits are the same as health interventions, we may be convincing ourselves that we are making a difference to workplace health when we are not.

Stephen Bevan is head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)