UK employees work some of the longest hours in Europe but produce 30% less per hour than workers in France, Germany and the US (according to the London School of Economics). Low productivity has been a thorn in the side of successive Governments and predictions for any future change aren’t optimistic. Whatever form Brexit takes, it will further expose the UK to global competition and even more stark comparisons in areas like productivity.
Looking from a health and wellbeing perspective, the productivity conundrum doesn’t look so complicated. The harder employers push their staff to be productive – focusing on new efficiencies in practices, cost-savings from digital working, ‘always on’ availability – the less they get from people over time. On a rational level, all the changes are sensible, but they are also mechanical. People wither under the combination of pressures and productivity suffers.
As the Willis Health & Productivity Survey Report 2015 argued, employers need to think more holistically when it comes to what impacts on productivity, not just try to pull levers that ratchet up what employees do in the time available.
Employee wellbeing is based on inter-relationships between work and home life, physical and mental health. The work we’ve been doing at Bluecrest with our employer partners is based on this understanding of the importance of taking a ‘public health’ approach: making low-cost health screenings available to all staff; providing comprehensive anonymised data to inform wellbeing strategies; and spending time with employers to explain trends and what they could be doing to improve organisational health and with particular groups of staff.
The issues raised by research evidence on employee health and productivity can be grouped into three overlapping areas.
The workplace culture and environment can be the root of poor mental wellbeing as a result of unrealistic time pressures and targets, strained relationships and bullying. But also has the potential to be the basis of a positive culture of wellness, supporting health and wellbeing initiatives.
Secondly, there’s the personal dimension. Whether employees look after their own health – at the basic level of getting sleep, eating well, taking exercise – is fundamental. There’s also the issue of their personal values, beliefs and attitudes to work, and their ability to cope with demands from relationships, finances and responsibilities like caring for family.
And thirdly, the impact of risks to health. Ongoing medical conditions (such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc) have all been shown to decrease productivity. Undiagnosed conditions, both physical and mental, have the potential to lead to more serious health problems. Early recognition and flagging any increased risks to health is vital to help employees avoid chronic long-term conditions.
Critically, organisations need to move away from simply viewing investment in wellness as purely about cost reduction (the Return on Investment) and towards a focus on the Value of Investment looking at a wider set of outcome metrics: absenteeism, worker morale, employee turnover, presenteeism costs, workers compensation, disability, employee loyalty and tenure. All of these factors add up to a significant impact on productivity.
Employers that adopt a public health culture will be best placed to improve productivity. When the University of Birmingham looked at workplace wellbeing programmes and their impact, it pointed to the importance of interventions that target whole organisational cultures and practices; run sustained programmes, such as annual health screenings, and by tailoring the health and wellbeing offerings to particular groups of staff and their needs.
Health benefits can’t keep being seen as just a perk, separate from issues of business performance. Join up the thinking and there’s a solid platform for turning productivity levels around for the long-term.
Dr Nick Summerton is a GP, public health consultant, advisor to NICE and Medical Director at Bluecrest Wellness.