For a sustainable and meaningful approach to employee wellbeing, employers need to start from day one of employment with an integrated occupational health and wellbeing strategy, says Carl Laidler.

“Wellbeing” is a word often bandied around organisations by HR professionals and senior management. It is done with the best intentions: finding ways to focus on employee health and happiness and, in turn, improve engagement and productivity.

However, whilst the legislative occupational health requirements are arguably an easier box to tick, many organisations struggle to establish and maintain a meaningful wellbeing programme that is truly effective and consistently managed.

Research by Health Shield has shown that nearly nine out of 10 employers feel that absence negatively affects their business – yet only four out of 10 have a formal wellbeing strategy in place.

Alongside this lack of an internal wellbeing framework, it is also often the case that many companies, particularly smaller ones, don’t know where to turn for external advice.

The Government did its best to change this with the launch of its Fit For Work referral service in 2014. In its three years of operation, however, the service was hugely under-utilised and the announcement of its closure last December did not come as a surprise to many.

The problem is that Fit for Work was designed as a reactive, as opposed to a proactive and preventative, service. Employees went off sick for four weeks or more, then the service – and only then – kicked in. Even assuming employers and GPs thought to use it.

Preventative wellbeing, on the other hand, requires a longer-term strategic approach.

Wellbeing in the workplace should begin from day one of an individual’s employment, not once a health issue has been established or upon reaching a certain level of seniority.

The wellbeing needs of every individual should be treated on a level playing field in order to instil a culture that prioritises the wellbeing needs of the entire workforce, not just the privileged few.

Of course, cost is a major factor in deterring companies from adopting such an approach. More affordable workplace screening initiatives are already available, as are schemes such as health cash plans, which provide an affordable way for companies to offer preventative benefits and services. Such plans provide cashback for everyday health requirements including dental and optical bills, physiotherapy, podiatry and, increasingly, a range of services such as virtual GPs and health screenings.

However, before even thinking about such solutions, companies first need to identify the needs of employees. Here, therefore, are three simple steps to follow that should, in my opinion, form the bedrock of every corporate wellbeing strategy:

1. Pre-commencement/new starter health questionnaire
First and foremost, make use of online occupational health questionnaires. There is a range available, tailored to need and stage in the employment journey. By doing so, employers ensure that the wellbeing journey starts even before the employee steps foot in the building.

In other words, employee health and wellbeing needs are identified from the outset, making those needs easier to assess and manage in the future. The employee feels valued regardless of rank, increasing engagement from the outset, and relevant preventative measures may be put in place or existing health issues assessed and managed from day one.

Next, follow-up with an annual health screening for all employees. These can now start from as little as £35 per employee and are recommended as best practice for any company seeking to maintain the health and wellbeing of employees in the long-term, which of course should be the ultimate goal.

In conducting health screens we find that only around one in three people has a good level of exercise. Repeated annually, measurable outcomes can be achieved.

Employers should ideally offer screenings within working hours, to ensure accessibility for the full workforce, allowing earlier detection of health issues and enabling preventative measures or treatment to be actioned by a GP as soon as possible.

2. Occupational health risk surveillance assessments
Face-to-face occupational health risk surveillance assessments should be carried out, where legislation dictates and in line with those jobs that require a “Fit for Work” certificate – fork-lift truck drivers, to give just one of many examples.

These assessments look at many aspects – including things such as eyesight, hearing and musculoskeletal conditions – and they are designed to assess personal risk and ensure others won’t be put at risk.

3. Occupational health management referrals
Few companies are lucky enough to have an in-house occupational health professional. But help can be at hand in the shape of free support and referral helplines.

Employers and employees may call the dedicated line for advice, support and, if necessary, a referral from an occupational health professional to a relevant wellbeing service – whether that be cognitive behavioural therapy, mental health awareness training for line managers or everyday health services.

Some providers now offer all of these services at very affordable rates, meaning that a whole workforce wellbeing approach is achievable.

And with the Government reportedly musing over whether companies should report on wellbeing in their annual report and accounts (indeed, some larger companies are already taking the lead and doing so) now is the time to take a sustained and strategic approach. Cost should never be a barrier.

As published in Personnel Today on 6th July 2018

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