Worrying news this week from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW), who report that unhealthy employees are costing firms dearly when it comes to productivity.

BHW’s latest report looks at the link between employee ill-health and short term productivity loss. According to an article in HR Magazine, BHW found that British employers are losing an average of 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year. Mostly due to people taking time off sick or not being at their best in the office as a result of being poorly.

This is an issue that will no doubt be familiar to many employers. The average level of employee absence stands at 6.3 days per employee, per year which adds up to a cost of £522 per employee. Presenteeism – when people who are ill struggle into work and put in an under-par performance (not to mention spreading their germs) – is equally costly and disruptive.

The good news, however, is that employers can do something positive to help staff improve their health. The BHW research found that wellness programmes had the potential to significantly impact both employee health and productivity levels. So, what can your business do to promote better health among its people?

1. Train managers to recognise signs of stress

Stress is now one of the top causes of employee absence, second only to minor illnesses. Of course, not all stress is work-related. Employees may also be struggling with personal issues. But life and work are inextricably entwined, and whatever the cause, managers need to know how to spot the signs of a team member who is under pressure.

Managers are often worried about approaching employees who are displaying signs of anxiety. They don’t want to tread on difficult personal territory and are worried they won’t know how to cope if the person becomes upset.

Training will help them understand how best to identify people who are struggling, what kind of conversations are appropriate, what type of interventions (i.e. flexible working or job redesign) might help, and where they can signpost employees for further help if needed.

2. Promote healthy eating

Healthy eating can be a sensitive subject. You can’t force your employees to switch to kale and quinoa if they’re set on eating pizza and ice cream. But there are things employers can provide employees with the right information to encourage them to make healthy choices.

An office fruit bowl is probably the simplest way to tempt people away from the vending machine. It’s a small, but inexpensive, measure that will help people towards their five-a-day and provide an alternative to the office cake and biscuits.

Some companies have also been successful with inviting a nutritionist to give a lunch-time talk and organising healthy cooking demonstrations. It’s often the small measures that can motivate people and make a real difference.

3. Talk to people about sleep


Sleep has traditionally been considered a personal issue rather than an organisational one. However, recent research suggests a lack of sleep is having a real impact on performance and is becoming a problem the corporate world can no longer afford to ignore.

A study from Hult International Business School found that managers across the board are getting less than the recommended minimum amount of sleep. This has a real impact on one’s ability to manage complex tasks and display the behaviours expected at work. 69 per cent of managers surveyed, for example, said they had trouble staying focused in meetings, while 65 per cent admitted finding it harder to work with challenging colleagues when sleep deprived.

Organisations need to talk openly to their people about sleep and examine their working policies and practices to make sure they are not inadvertently exacerbating the problem. Some suggestions include examining travel policies to make sure they include sufficient recovery time after flights or long journeys, looking at the scheduling of meetings and creating more flexible ways of working.

4. Encourage physical fitness

Not everyone is a natural gym-bunny. Few of us achieve the recommended 10,000 steps per day, with studies showing that over a quarter of adults in England do less than 30 minutes of physical activity per week. Again, you can’t force someone off the couch and into Lycra. But there are ways to gently encourage employees to become more active.

Explore whether it’s possible to strike up a relationship with the local leisure centre or gym, for example, to offer free or subsidised classes. Challenge employees to set up their own football or netball team. Encourage people to actually take their lunch hours – and use some of it to get out in the fresh air. You could even consider introducing walking meetings (weather permitting) as a way of getting people moving.

5. Challenge commuting habits

wellness programmes

Research has shown that people’s journey to work can have a real impact on how they feel once they get into the office. Sitting in traffic or standing for an hour on a crowded train is not the most energising way to start the day.

If you ask people whether they could make their commute more active, most people will tell you that it’s not practical to say cycle or walk to work (and in many cases that may be true). But sometimes if people try it, they may find it’s easier than they think – and that the health benefits make it worth the effort.

Challenge people to try an alternative, more active way to get to work just for a week. Suggest people buddy up for a walk to work, or follow the example of Exeter, who are experimenting with electric bike hire as way of making cycling to work more feasible. Even something as simple as getting off the tube or bus one stop earlier can make a real difference.

The best HR software allows you to set up portals to share these tips and resources that will help remind your employees.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.