Five musts for your workplace wellbeing radar

Employers shouldn’t rely on the NHS to keep staff healthy – this year they need to take proactive steps to enhance wellbeing

From ‘sickies’ to presenteeism, ‘always on’ working, stress and mental ill-health, risk and safety, back pain and musculoskeletal disorders, workplace health is a complex, multi-faceted agenda. Every organisation is faced with different challenges, tensions and opportunities, and will need to respond in the ways most appropriate for it.

Sitting back and doing nothing, and relying on GPs and a stretched NHS for your employee health needs, is no longer good enough.

Employers face competing agendas: productivity, competitiveness, retention, cost control, to name but a few. Employees also increasingly expect their organisations to deliver much more from a health and wellbeing perspective than just keeping them safe at work.

All this means many businesses are now striving to deliver a joined-up ‘modern’ health and wellbeing approach. But what should that include? Here are five aspects that should be on your radar in 2017.

1. Having a rounded, modern strategy

It’s essential to be engaged and proactive about workplace health and wellbeing; this means knowing where your health and wellbeing pinch-points are likely to come and setting your sights on where you can make long-term health and wellbeing wins. Keep this in mind when tackling different health risks.

Balance is essential. Your approach should be stigma free, taboo brave and ensure parity between mental and physical health. Your policy should include both preventive solutions and plans for responsive support that can to be triggered as needed.  

For many, a first step is to implement expert provisions such as occupational health, counselling, physio and/or a neat collection of benefits ranging from gym membership to insurance. There is a compelling business case for investing in a range of solutions, which can be balanced with internal initiatives such as designated wellbeing champions, awareness campaigns, walking clubs and good policies on diet and breaks.

2. Obesity and diabetes

Research published in The Lancet last year warned that by 2025 one-third of UK adults would be obese. In September 2016, Public Health England estimated that 1 in 10 adults could have diabetes by 2035 (with 90 per cent of cases being type 2, which is linked to being overweight). Things are only going to get worse if nothing changes; each condition links to numerous associated serious health risks – both physical and mental – so it is worth working to prevent these conditions.  

3. Mental health and stress

The impact of stress is now at an all-time high, with the CIPD’s 2016 Absence Management Surveynaming stress as the leading cause of long-term absence (53 per cent) and the second-highest cause of short-term absence (47 per cent).

Many employers find stress and mental ill-health ‘difficult’ to contend with, because problems are so nebulous and individual. Practical interventions such as employee assistance programmes, access to occupational health services and resilience training can all help to manage anxiety and depression, both of which can trigger stress.

But the stubborn stigma that still exists around mental ill-health can mean that, to effect long-term change, you need to take a long, hard look at your working environment and organisational and management culture.

4. Musculoskeletal and back care

Stress may make the headlines, but musculoskeletal injuries and disorders (especially back pain) continue to cost employers dearly in terms of absence. You need to give people the tools to look after themselves, including the right chairs, desks, posture and lifting advice, and onsite occupational physiotherapy.

But it also helps to be aware of the latest thinking and best practice. The popularity of desk-based stretches is on the rise, for good reason. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has published updated guidance on managing lower back pain and sciatica. The practical tip to take away is that exercise in all its forms – for example, stretching, strengthening, aerobics or yoga – should be the first step in managing the condition.

5. Sedentary lifestyles and active working

The impact of increasingly sedentary working environments (particularly in offices) has led to many of us sitting for an average of 10 hours a day.

The World Health Organization rates sedentary lifestyles (or ‘physical inactivity’) as the world’s fourth-biggest killer. But perhaps of more relevance for employers is the fact that persistent inactive behaviour is a key contributor in the development of conditions ranging from back and neck pain, mental health issues and type 2 diabetes, to weight gain, thrombosis, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

At work, this risk is exacerbated by a ‘seated’ culture of desk-working, sedentary lunch breaks and long meetings, but the risk can be reduced with a change in working culture. Effective measures include sit-stand desks, stretching and exercise, encouraging employees to walk over to colleagues, standing meetings and lunchtime walks. Ultimately this problem is fundamentally cultural, so employers really can make a difference.

Charlotte Cross is director of the Better Health at Work Alliance


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