Health hits home in the workplace

With the ageing of the workforce, longer working hours and increased competition for talent, Melissa Yen examines how companies are actively seeking to improve benefits and the lifestyle of their employees through workplace health initiatives

With the ageing of the workforce, longer working hours and increased competition for talent, Melissa Yen examines how companies are actively seeking to improve benefits and the lifestyle of their employees through workplace health initiatives

The inactive nature of working behind a desk, along with all the added health problems of stress, poor nutrition, and longer working hours has seen increases in the risk of developing many life-threatening illnesses. As a result, it has become essential for organisations to consider taking all necessary measures to ensure they do all they can to help maintain and improve the physical and even mental health of their employees.

Traditionally, company health promotion programs have often been seen as a privilege reserved for senior management. But now, large corporations are making health a priority for their entire staff. As a result, other companies that operated with the ‘exec only’ mindset are taking a new look at that market, says John Lang, managing director of Good Health Solutions.

“A lot of employers have embraced employee wellbeing, because it’s seen as a good thing to do around corporate citizenship and responsibility. These days we’re finding the more progressive companies are saying we want outcomes, such as reductions in WorkCover claims, reductions in illness and absence, improvements in productivity and so forth,” he says. “It’s not something our industry has traditionally measured. I’d venture to say that out of maybe 500-600 corporate health promotion programs going on around Australia, there’s probably only two that track and validate the hard core business metrics.”

There has also been increased use of the online medium to provide health-related information, according to Lang. Individualised online health profiles based on age, gender, lifestyle, risks, likes and dislikes, can boost staff engagement in corporate health programs to up to 90 per cent –“especially if you can push content out to people, rather than relying on them having a bit of discretionary time at their disposal to browse a website looking for more information. That’s definitely been a significant development,” he says.

According to research conducted in 2005 by Medibank Private, Australian workers with poor health take up to nine times more annual sick days than workers with good health while the healthiest employees are nearly three times more productive while at work than the least healthy.

“For HR professionals, health can no longer be thought of as a government and society issue – it’s a critical business issue,” says Clive Pinder, managing director of wellbeing consultancy vielife Group Limited. The research demonstrates the monetary link between employee health issues and critical business drivers like productivity and absence, he says, and reflects US and European research which has found employees in good health are up to 23 per cent more productive than those in poor health.

As corporate health and wellbeing programs offer wide-ranging benefits for employees, health programs are becoming commonplace in many organisations. Offerings range from free flu vaccinations through to running an onsite gym. The trend toward more inclusive policies has led to companies looking for programs that are universal in their appeal and scope. Many are offering programs that monitor overall health and provide information sessions that can be easily tailored to their specific staff population, rather than opting for onsite fitness facilities or discounted gym memberships which are seen as targeting the already healthy workforce and not the general population.

Chris Rabba, managing director of Peak Health Management, believes that workplace heath has come to incorporate a wide range of features over the last five years. “It’s not just about injury prevention/minimisation anymore,” he says. “Today it’s about wellness, providing for a more holistic definition and approach … being well at work must include strategies that address being well at home and life in general.”

According to Rabba, workplace health needs to become an integral part of HR’s people strategies in order to assist staff in taking responsibility for their own health and wellbeing at work. “I believe there will be more of an obligation for employers to satisfy staff wellness needs at work,” he says, “as our ‘work time’far exceeds our ‘life time’.”

Moving health online

There has been increased use of the online medium to provide health-related information, according to John Lang, managing director of Good Health Solutions. "Rather than just set up a basic health website which contains reasonably static health information, you might be lucky to get a 20 per cent strike rate in the first month with a bit of promotion, against 2 or 3 per cent in the next month and 1 per cent for the die-hards a year later," he says. However, individualised health profiles based on age, gender, lifestyle, risks, likes and dislikes, can increase engagement to up to 90 per cent - "especially if you can push content out to people, rather than relying on them having a bit of discretionary time at their disposal to browse a website looking for more information. That's definitely been a significant development," he says.

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