Many benefits come from actively improving employee wellbeing, but with so many competing health agendas, pinpointing a good modern strategy for your organisation comes down to the right approach. There is lots to contend with. Organisations are being urged to confront the prevalence of stress (whether caused by work or not), an obesity epidemic, increasing diabetes rates, the risk and effect of alcohol, policy implications for the new ban on so-called ‘legal highs’, all whilst targeting specific areas they may have glossed over in the past such as stigmas surrounding men’s health or mental health, and the impacts of ageing workforces or sedentary cultures on health (sitting is the new smoking). Modern day workplace health is a diverse and complicated arena for even the most seasoned employers to negotiate. The incentives for getting it right are exceptional – bringing both ethical and bottom line rewards, but it needs to be made easier.


Practicality plays a part


We recently launched the Better Health at Work Alliance (BHWA), a pan-industry advice body to provide an easy route through to all specialisms and solutions.  No more going around the houses to find expert help! Plotting the right course for workplace health can be tricky enough in any organisation, without a tough time trying to find the expertise to underpin the strategy you’ve decided upon. So a body that connects employers with workplace health experts from all sectors was long overdue.


But approach is key


Access is only half of the battle though. Deciphering the right approach in the first place - especially given the vast array of different health hurdles and competing solutions available for modern workplace health strategy - is pivotal to how much success your programme delivers. In 2017 employers would be wise to take a hard look at how they approach and prioritise different health risks, – the key being to reduce stigmas as far as possible. Prioritising bigger risks, even with sticky topics like stress, is a sensible approach.


‘Health is health’


The direction of workplace wellness programmes should no longer be influenced by avoiding those health issues that take you into taboos, or social territory. A ‘health is health’ approach is needed. And this doesn’t preclude you from being sensitive. This year will undoubtedly continue the drive for more parity between mental health and physical health issues. Though many employers and society on the whole still find it awkward, mental health needs to be taken very seriously. Research by the Mental Health Foundation, Oxford Economics and Unum reveals that mental health costs the UK economy about £25bn a year. This is predicted to rise to £32.7bn by 2030. The call for parity between physical and mental health isn’t news, but is finally arising as one of the big agendas for employers. Ultimately, they are two sides to the same coin, and treating them equally is not an agenda that is going away.


Winning on many levels


It’s also the right direction for any policy, as frequently the two sides are intrinsically linked in many health issues. A rounded approach here, and in many of the main health risks, will benefit any work-health programme. Take obesity for example, it’s knock effects can cause depression, accelerate diabetes and MSK disorders, or even dementia. A whole mix of impacts on both sides. Research published in the Lancet last year warned that in just 8 years, by 2025, 1/3 of the UK adult population will be obese. Employers should want to tackle this risk to win on many levels. Adopting healthy initiatives to combat obesity will also improve other linked problems, for example health risks generated by sedentary behaviour, itself also identified as a top health risk.


Turning the sickness absence tables


There’s also no doubt that workplace stress must be a priority for 2017. The latest CIPD Absence Management 2016 report, sites that stress is now the leading cause of long term sickness absence, with 1/3 respondents seeing an increase in their organisation. Again, a modern approach is key here. Stress can affect anyone regardless of their position within an organisation, because it is often caused by underlying social and personal factors that reduce an individual’s ability to cope with challenges in their job. These hurdles can become ‘last straw-style’ triggers or flash points for overwhelming stress.

Employers mustn’t avoid addressing social issues that might be negatively impacting on their workers’ health, as inevitably these will also impact an individual’s ability to do their job effectively. This might include becoming more aware of staff alcohol consumption, financial anxiety, bereavement, or depression – physical and mental stressors – any of which can exacerbate each other and all of which can lead to back a stress diagnosis, for instance. They can be tackled with workplace counselling support, referrals to debt solutions, or raising awareness of the health risks associated with alcohol. On the flip side, support for social factors that positively impact upon health, such as the popularity of wellness tech. like ‘Fit Bit’ for tracking activity during the day, should also be on your radar. Supporting staff in achieving personal goals, such as fitness targets, through work based benefits or flexibility can pay dividends in improving both physical and mental health.


Everyone can win


Overall, leadership within organisations must appreciate there are real business and social benefits of embracing employee wellbeing. Providing a modern approach wellness programme for staff should always be cost-effective, even for SMEs.  And anyone struggling to find the expertise to support their programme can work with the BHWA to find suitable providers.

And once you move forward with your new approach this year, don’t forget the importance of communicating your plans with staff and line managers to ensure it becomes a workplace-wide culture.