Increasingly, we are working longer and more intensively, resulting in reduced productivity and deteriorating overall health. Work itself can become the cause of many ailments and illnesses, with increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and job satisfaction. In turn, for the company, the absence of employees causes heavy losses. Can this be remedied?
Another hard day at work passes. The same uncomfortable position, neck pain, back pain, tired and burning eyes. On top of that, new changes have just been made to a project you’re working on – it’s going to take some extra work. And you have to be on time with everything….
A day like every day at work for many of us, and we do, after all, spend an extraordinary amount of time there. According to estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as much as 52 per cent of the world’s population spends one-third of their adult lives at work. If we subtract the time we spend sleeping, it turns out that work takes up as much as half or more of it. Currently, the working time in Poland is one of the longest in Europe, in addition to the issue of the ageing population and the lengthening period of professional activity. The time we spend working in offices, shops or behind the wheel cannot fail to have an impact on our health and fitness. This impact is even more detrimental the longer we work. Working in the same position for long periods of time, in a poorly differentiated environment, under conditions of physical and mental overload, we can experience disorders of the circulatory, musculoskeletal, nervous and immune systems, as well as disorders of the sensory organs. Unfortunately, these problems become worse the longer we work under unfavourable conditions. We are often required to be more productive and efficient at work, and we work longer and more intensively – which in turn has an even more negative impact on our functioning in and out of work. The result is a decrease in worker productivity and a deterioration in overall health, with a consequent increase in labour costs. Consequently, work itself can become the cause of many ailments and illnesses, and thus increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and job satisfaction. According to EUROSTAT data, 8.6 per cent of workers in the EU have experienced work-related health problems1. This is why it is so important to provide our employees with the tools to minimise the negative effects of an increasingly demanding work environment.
Investing in health
Already several years ago, managers of Polish companies and institutions found out that investing in the health of employees is very profitable. It has become standard in both large corporations and smaller companies to provide quick and easy access to private medical care. By design, employees covered by private health care get quicker and easier access to professional help and examinations, without spending so much time queuing and on sick leave waiting for a specialist consultation. As it turns out, however, this is not enough.
Most common work-related ailments2 (in %)
Private health care does not usually include measures to address the direct negative impact of work on our health. Occupational health and safety and occupational health measures should also fulfil such tasks, but this is rarely the case. Compulsory periodic examinations usually include blood pressure measurement, cholesterol level determination, ophthalmological examination, morphology, liver enzyme levels or possibly ECG examination, chest X-ray, etc. It is still very rare to find health and safety professionals who are aware of the problem and who are able and willing to make a difference. And there is a lot to be done. The health of employees has a direct impact on a company’s financial performance. Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that work-related health problems cause an economic loss equal to 4-6 per cent of GDP in most countries, and that basic health services performed to prevent work-related illnesses cost an average of $18 to $60 per worker. In addition, these studies have shown that workplace health initiatives can reduce absenteeism due to sick leave by 27 per cent and health care costs for companies by 26 per cent3.
Health promotion programmes
As the example of countries where the health costs of negative workplace impacts have been assessed shows, the implementation of health promotion programmes has yielded spectacular results. As an example, data compiled in 2009 by the UK organisation Business in the Community together with the Government’s Health Work Wellbeing initiative4 show that following the implementation of the ‘Energy for Performance’ programme at GlaxoSmithKline’s London headquarters, aimed at improving general wellbeing, changing attitudes, improving self-awareness and allowing flexible working hours or access to medical assistance and fitness in the workplace, there was a 60% reduction in mental health problems and a 29% reduction in absenteeism, an increase in employee satisfaction by 21 per cent, and an increase in productivity from 7 per cent to 13 per cent. In addition, in the same study, up to 53 per cent of participants reported improvements in physical, emotional, mental and spiritual functioning, and there was a 33 per cent reduction in absenteeism related to back pain5.
After British Gas Services (BGS) – the UK’s largest gas supplier – introduced the Back Care programme, focused on exercise to prevent back pain, there was a 43 per cent reduction in absenteeism related to back pain, and 73 per cent of participants in the programme did not miss a day of work because of it in a year. The reimbursement of the programme reached a ratio of 1 : 37!6.
Sustaining the changes we make
Our ‘general’ health, i.e. what we come to work with, is mainly determined by individual genetic predisposition, habits, lifestyle and the environment in which we live. It also depends largely on the quality and availability of professional medical care and the affluence of society. It is also partly shaped by government health policy. Fortunately, although it may not seem so obvious at first glance, the most common causes of the negative impact of work lend themselves to relatively simple and not very costly modifications. In many Western corporations and organisations, specially designed programmes have been successfully implemented to improve body ergonomics and physical fitness, to reduce emotional tension and stress levels, or to promote health-promoting behaviour among employees. Such programmes mainly boil down to organising training, improving work ergonomics, education and training activities, introducing more flexible forms of work or efforts to improve interpersonal culture.
An indispensable condition for success is to consolidate the changes introduced by enabling and encouraging appropriate exercise, techniques and methods to reduce the most commonly experienced ailments. Some of these programmes also include activities to improve general health, such as organising additional screening tests, increasing the availability of healthy food in staff canteens or bars, or promoting physical activity outside of work. In the latter case, it usually comes down to financing subscriptions to fitness clubs, swimming pools, organising corporate sports teams or even providing bicycle racks at the workplace.
In a small number of cases, greater expenditure is required on, for example, replacing air conditioning, carpets, lighting or other equipment when these are the cause of problems such as skin problems, recurrent infections or allergies among employees. A key factor in the effective implementation of health-promoting measures is that the desired health-promoting attitudes and behaviours are presented and modelled by top management, because – following a common motto – the example comes from the top.
A socially responsible company
In addition to the obvious purely financial benefits, health-oriented programmes are intended to contribute to greater comfort and satisfaction at work, improve the atmosphere, reduce absenteeism and foster positive employee attitudes towards occupational health. Participating employees gain a sense of the employer’s concern for their wellbeing, and the interactions used in similar programmes can additionally contribute to strengthening bonds between employees and creating a family atmosphere. A company implementing such programmes achieves a reduction in labour costs and gains additional value in terms of developing a sense of belonging to the organisation among employees, as well as increasing positive opinions about the employer. These programmes also fit perfectly into the scope of activities that increase corporate social responsibility.
Authors: Bożena Roczniak, Monika Jagodzińska
Bożena Roczniak, PhD
Managing Partner at HR Development. PhD and ICC certified coach with many years of experience. Licensed practitioner: Insights Discovery, MBTI®(Mayers-Briggs Type Indiator), Thomas International.
Health programme consultant at HR Development. Develops and coordinates all activities and communication related to the development of health-oriented programmes in HR Development.
1 http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/3433488/ 5283817/KS-SF-09-063-EN.PDF/10b62d3b-e4dd-403f-b337-af6ffd3de8de, Eurostat Statistics in Focus 63/2009, Population and social condition, 9 March 2016.
2 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201108/20110829ATT25418/20110829ATT25418EN.pdf; Occupational health and safety risks for the most vulnerable workers, 9 March 2016.
3 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs389/en/, ‘Protecting workers’ health’, 9 March 2016.
4 http://www.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/healthy_people_healthy_profits.pdf; Business in the Communit, ‘Healthy People=Healthy Profit’ p. 2, 9 March 2009.
5 as above, p. 23
6 as above, p. 7