Why employee wellbeing matters - economic impactHere’s a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of employee wellbeing.

Come with me, if you will, into the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the mid-19th century. The lot of the working folk is a bad one and families give up their children into apprenticeships to ensure that they are fed and clothed in some manner. Working conditions are terrible, accidents are rife, and industrial diseases common. It is at this time that factory inspectors are first employed, in an attempt to stem the flow of child deaths.

Treat ‘em (less) mean

At the same time, up and down the country, several forward-thinking industrialists – such as Gregg of Cheshire, and Owen and Salt of Yorkshire – began to realise two things. Initially their social conscience told them that people should be treated better than this, that it was not right to grow rich at the expense of others. As they implemented the forerunners of occupational health services and improved conditions, they saw that healthy staff are more productive.

These pioneers recognised the benefits of educating their workers, of giving time to social contact and leisure. By today’s standards, they made only modest improvements in working conditions, but what they started led to the building of entire villages (such as Port Sunlight by the Lever brothers, and Bournville by Cadbury) that were designed to improve the lives of workers. These model villages were built around sports pitches, running tracks and the like.

Getting monotonous

In the early part of the ­20th century, developments in industrialisation led to huge increases in efficiency. Production-line working meant that jobs became increasingly specialised, but at the cost of variety and autonomy for workers. In addition, the number of staff required to carry out manufacturing operations dropped, and jobs became harder to find and keep. Work became monotonous and uninspiring, and time and motion trumped employee engagement in terms of management drives for efficiency.

By the end of the same century, health and safety legislation was slowly winning the battle, with industrial accidents and disease at all-time lows. As the UK came out of recession in the 1990s, and into the boom years, wages were at a premium and the Western world predominantly comprised of ‘knowledge workers’ – most manufacturing now being carried out in the developing nations.

And so to the modern day…

Have we forgotten some of the lessons learned back in the mills? Call centre workers have every minute of their day planned and watched. Opportunities for physical activity are limited, with long working hours and an increase in dual-income families. Thanks to mobile technology, many of us are never away from work (I’m writing this on the train to London) and with globalisation, some people never meet their colleagues face to face.

We’ve come a long way since the mills, with our minimum wage, statutory holidays and maximum working time. But evolution should be an ongoing process, and there is much more we can do to improve.

The cost of ill-health

In 2008 Dame Carol Black produced her report: ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’ and identified a cost of £100bn to the UK economy of working age ill health, with direct costs to industry of over £13bn. Long after our cousins across the Atlantic, we started to take notice and to ask ourselves what we could do to improve this. Taking our lead from the US, we began to try out lifestyle interventions to improve the health of our staff.

Gym memberships, free fruit and massages were the order of the day as we tried to reduce the costs of healthcare. But we were missing a trick. In the US almost all employers provide health insurance, with many of the larger organisations self-insuring. They realised immediate cost savings from their lifestyle interventions. This side of the pond, we often failed to evaluate the cost benefit of what we were doing, and many such schemes were seen as luxuries to be discarded when the latest recession began to bite. As evidence began to gather, researchers realised that what brought returns in the UK was as much about happiness at work as fitness.

Why wellbeing matters

To survive, modern employee wellbeing programmes must stand up to scrutiny and present a strong business case for their introduction. Yes there is an argument for organisations to contribute for wider social reasons, but we need to look at the range of benefits that UK companies can experience for themselves.

With an average sick pay spend of around £700 per employee, not to mention the costs of presenteeism, there is a wealth of evidence to show why employee wellbeing matters. There are myriad direct and indirect benefits of such programmes, from improved employer branding to direct increases in productivity – if they are well-designed and tailor-made.

What was once hit and miss has become a science. I attended the second International Wellbeing at Work conference in Salford last month and was impressed with the level and type of research going on across Europe and the rest of the world. Employee wellbeing has come of age – we now have a solid evidence base showing what works and how we can improve business through improving employee health.

Written by Rob Woollen, lead consultant, Rightway Wellbeing Ltd

Rob is a fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and a member of the Institute of Training and Occupational Learning. He was a finalist in the 2009 Manchester Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Rob chairs the North West Health and Physical Activity Forum.

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