From musculoskeletal injuries to mental health problems, Helen Swire examines what the key wellbeing risks are in the workplace, and asks how employers can address them


It could be about encouraging employees to go to the gym and eat more healthily, or maybe putting in place a confidential counselling system to help address emotional wellness. Certainly, wellbeing is very much today’s benefits buzzword.

But understanding what your business needs and employee needs are and what products or strategies can be put in place to help is a question that is leaving many companies bamboozled. Many simply don’t know where to start with this huge area of workplace support.

Over half (53%) of respondents to Reward’s major Wellbeing in the Workplace 2017 survey told us that they do not have a formal corporate strategy in place – however, 72% do measure sickness absence as part of their HR strategy.

So where do the barriers lie in joining up what is measured with what is managed? For well over a half (57%) of survey respondents, the main challenge is justifying a return on investment, while nearly a third (31%) cite a lack of senior management commitment.

Industry experts emphasise that the latter is the true starting point of any health and wellbeing strategy. “For the strategy to be successful, it’s critical to gain senior management’s visible buy-in and support, and that includes funding,” argues Dr Chris Tomkins, head of proactive health at AXA PPP Healthcare.

“It’s important to remember that a healthy dose of realism won’t go amiss when it comes to securing the resources to build and maintain the momentum necessary for success.”

But how to gain this buy-in? “Clearly, return on investment is important and so, therefore, is inclusion of robust, evidence-based metrics in order to assess it,” says Tomkins.

“More important than the how is the what and the why – that is, setting clear objectives and a suitable strategy to achieve them, and the key drivers for your organisation: engagement, corporate responsibility and/or productivity.”

Both sides of the coin

This is where the data you are gathering comes into its own – but employers must also remember that they cannot value their administration systems above and beyond their regard for face-to-face conversations with their members of staff.

Naturally, the data can give, first and foremost, a clear picture of where problems lie in the workforce: if you are managing absence via your HR systems, or monitoring it independently, you should have access to a wealth of information about why your staff are off, and how they are being supported in their return to work.

And the trends will start to emerge. Are some people off more than others? Are there recurring issues with stress, or do your manual workers have repeated musculoskeletal problems? Is there a time of the week, month or year that more people are off work sick than others?

Conversations and anecdotal evidence, however, also have their place in building a strategy that fosters employee buy-in and shows a decent return on investment.

“Employee benefits provide an excellent opportunity for business leaders to open up the lines of communication between decision makers and the wider workforce to find out what problems they are facing,” says Brian Hall, managing director of BHSF employee benefits.

“A benefits strategy based on a one-size-fits-all approach will simply not have widespread buy-in, or may fall out of favour very quickly, potentially leading to employees feeling disenfranchised.”

More than just helping to tailor to various demographics in the workforce, these conversations are the tool to help employers uncover ‘hidden’ absence: those days which data may well show up as someone being off with a cold, but in reality are down to a mental health illness that they feel unable to discuss with HR, or care responsibilities that their working schedule does not support.

Andrew Supple, senior benefits consultant at Standard Life, advocates this combination of anecdotal and data-based evidence. He says: “Surveys and focus groups are excellent in establishing the issues that employees are facing or thinking about. Combine this subjective information with objective data from a range of sources, and this will provide you with a clear understanding of what employees are thinking, their state of health and what is actually happening to them.”

What’s the problem?

The major health and wellbeing problems affecting the workforce are, unsurprisingly, as diverse as today’s workforce demographics, especially as a combination of increasing UK longevity and growing pressure on the NHS is leading more people to look to their employer for support.

As Rachel Riley, commercial director at WPA, points out: “People living longer and the abolition of the default retirement age means that the typical corporate healthcare scheme has an ageing demographic – which is inherently more risky.”

Reward’s research highlighted several issues considered to be real problems in UK businesses, including:

  • Mental health issues (including those due to work-related stress)
  • Work-life balance
  • Musculoskeletal problems (MSDs)
  • Caring responsibilities outside the workplace
  • Debt or financial worries; and
  • Living with chronic health conditions

Indeed, mental health issues and MSDs are now widely believed to be the top two causes of workplace absence in the UK.

The Office for National Statistics reports that MSDs are responsible for around 33 million days of sickness absence per year, schemes: usually 35%–40% of the total claims spend.

Similarly, mental health issues are costing the UK economy £15bn per year in lost productivity, whether through absence from work or conversely the issue of presenteeism: coming into work despite being ill, but failing to be productive because of this ill health.

“The biggest risks in the modern workforce are psychosocial,” says Standard Life’s Supple. “The environment we are in directly affects on our sense of self, and our psychology directly impacts on our health and productivity. Placing employees in a negative environment leads to burnout, absence and attrition which will result in your best-performing employees leaving – whereas resilient, happy employees are shown consistently to have better health, creativity and productivity.”

Finding the product to meet the need

With increasing numbers of exciting apps and different technology propositions on the market, it is easy for an employer to be overwhelmed by choice, or to fall into the trap of choosing the shiniest, most exciting product – rather than the one that supports the various different needs of their workforce.

“It is essential to look at what will make a difference to individuals – to understand where they would welcome support,” says BHSF’s Hall.

“This will not only boost the uptake of benefits, but soliciting feedback and placing employees at the heart of the decision-making process can help make them feel valued and engaged.”

And it’s not just about the product: it also has to be a question of what the provider can bring to the table, especially if, as an employer, you are working on a relatively tight budget. Supple suggests some questions employers should ask themselves when making this crucial choice:

  • Do you want the best provider in each area or one who can offer a range of services which they can look to integrate for you?
  • Have they a track record of success?
  • Do they share the same passion and vision as you for wellbeing?
  • What is their employee wellbeing strategy and how is it helping their employees?
  • What is their technology like?

And, he adds, there’s a cultural aspect to making sure any health and wellbeing strategy works for your company.

“It isn’t only about products,” he advises. “Some of the biggest impacts on employee wellbeing are organisational, such as line managers genuinely engaging with their employees on a day-to-day basis, or policy changes, like offering flexible working.” 

While nearly a third (30%) of Reward’s survey respondents commented that cost savings through reduced absence or long-term sickness are the biggest advantage to their company of a wellbeing strategy, it has become about a much bigger picture than simply money.

Nearly half (47%) cited the benefit of increased employee productivity, while an overwhelming 80% said that having a wellbeing strategy in place leads to a much more engaged workforce.

The impact of this step-by-step approach to working on employee wellbeing – from getting senior buy-in through to implementing a strategy that works for the whole workforce – can be enormous for businesses in today’s wellbeing-focused environment.