Gary Cookson
   

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If we have access to more and more information about our health and wellbeing, and access to lots of research that makes the link between healthy employees and productivity, why are we still struggling to make a dent in many of the health and productivity related issues we face at work?

Is there a case for mandatory exercise classes in the Boardroom at lunchtime?

Maybe.

In this blog I’ll try to summarise what’s happened and what we could do about it.

Firstly, its clear that we do have a problem. A gov.uk survey published in July 2015 gave a useful overview of the scale of the issues presenting themselves to employers – here’s some of them:

  • 32% of employees had a health condition in the last 12 months but one-third of these had not discussed it with their employer, especially if it was a mental health condition
  • Half of those with a mental health condition reported that it affected their work
  • Having a supportive employer and discussing health conditions at an early stage were associated with being less likely to have had a period of more than two weeks off sick
  • 80% of staff who DO discuss their conditions with their employer find them to be supportive

So what can we deduce from this? That around 1/10 people have a condition that they are hiding from their employer, and likely around 1/20 people have a condition that is not only hidden, but is affecting their work. That IF people tell their employer about it, its likely they’ll get help – but that most don’t tell their employer about it.

Has it always been this way?

I suspect not. I think we’re seeing a greater level of understanding of, and reporting of, health and wellbeing issues for a variety of reasons – and prominent amongst these is the glut of available data about oneself that you can get from anywhere these days, from wearable technology to health apps to all manner of information available online.

But how many people actively use this information for their own good? Probably only a minority sadly – but its clear that if employers could convince people to do so, and could help them to do so, the benefits are there to be reaped by both parties. There is a clear link to productivity and performance.

And we all know it. But sometimes its hard to know what to do about it.

The CIPD have also published a report, in January 2016, which shows how they believe we could focus on “Five Domains of Wellbeing” – health, work, values, social, and personal growth. These areas are good and give a nice structure to how organisations can put in place an approach to improve health and wellbeing.

But so does the IiP Health and Wellbeing framework, and the GCC competition, and ACAS advice and more. There’s no shortage of structured frameworks for HR professionals to use, and its said by the CIPD that HR professionals are well placed to influence organisations to improve health and wellbeing.

Well said – but its not happening.

Could the barrier be HR people themselves? That health and wellbeing is not high enough up the HR agenda to really make a difference? Or that HR professionals don’t have the right mindset to lead the changes?

They ought to.

And yet I think there is often something missing from the HR professionals’ toolkit, and that’s a greater understanding of things like sports science, sports psychology, exercise and nutrition, and the ways in which professional athletes use a multitude of information and techniques to improve their performance.

Many HR professionals will understand this, but perhaps not enough – and not enough senior leaders in organisations either. If they did, perhaps organisational approaches to health and wellbeing would be more proactive and less reactive.

Sometimes, its true, cultural aspects get in the way and no matter how switched on and clued up the HR team are, other factors stop change from happening. I’ve worked in one organisation whose Chief Executive made it almost his personal mission to promote health and wellbeing (for both staff and customers) and who didn’t mind devoting a sizeable budget and staff time to improving wellbeing as he felt it was part of our duty of care to staff – and then through a merger, I saw that Chief Executive depart and be replaced by another who thought wellbeing activity was a waste of time and that individuals should look after themselves without any organisational intervention – and the culture changed as a result, and the activities and links to productivity died away with it.

But I’m firmly in the camp of better to do something and it not work, than not do anything and never realise any productivity gains. Yes, there is some resource required and yes, in hard times it may be difficult to justify this, but I could quote any number of tomes on employee engagement and wellbeing and the links to performance and my view would still be “why not try it?”

I enrolled a previous organisation into the Global Corporate Challenge and at the end of it we got some interesting statistics based on the 100+ staff who had participated in it:

  • 85% of employees reported that they now took more personal accountability for their own health
  • 78% of employees thought exercise was more enjoyable in the workplace
  • 72% of employees reported that their increased activity levels had become a habit
  • 82% of employees reported having a better understanding of what it takes to lead a healthier lifestyle
  • 55% now undertook 30 minutes of planned physical activity four or more times per week (up from 27%)
  • 62% of employees reported losing weight
  • 70% of employees reported a decrease in their stress levels at either home or work
  • 72% of employees reported an increase in their energy levels
  • 26% of employees reported an increase in their productivity
  • 74% of employees were now more aware of the organisations commitment to health and wellbeing

Going full circle now to the original gov.uk report, my organisation suddenly unlocked greater productivity from a quarter of our staff – and three-quarters had greater awareness of our ability and willingness to support wellbeing, meaning we were less likely to have people hiding issues away from us.

In short, it worked. It didn’t cost a great deal, or take up much time.

And if one organisation can do it, why not more?

I confess that I’m a bit of an evangelist about fitness and exercise, and having been horribly overweight and dangerously unfit at one point I’m now the exact opposite – and I preach with all the zeal of a convert. I’d happily lead lunchtime exercise classes (think Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd) and could happily insist on all new starters undertaking a full medical and psychological assessment…

…and yet, sports teams do just that. Not so much the lunchtime classes, but the full medical and psychological assessments – think how Premiership football teams go into the Nth degree of detail on new signings – maybe the corporate world could gain additional productivity by following suit…

There is something to that. If organisations are going to pay £25,000 a year to someone, and expect that person to stay with them for 4 – 5 years – its probably worth the few £k to get a full assessment done on them in order to satisfy yourself that the person is medically and psychologically able to give 100% during that period.

I guess what I’m saying is that organisations don’t often think about this upfront, and we should.

Now DROP, and give me 20.

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