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The links between exercise, sleep, physical health, financial health and mental health are well known but the virtuous circle seems ever-elusive for many. Therein lies the challenge – how to inspire everyone to act, not just those who would do it anyway.

I was recently asked for my input on workplace health by a rather direct journalist, who specified that it would need to focus on the latest academic and practical thinking rather than “regurgitating tired messages”. Cheeky, thought I, but it got me focused none-the-less.

Given the current political emphasis on Brexit and international relations, it’s tempting to think that the Government’s plans for achieving a healthy and inclusive workforce will end up on the back burner, but this isn’t the case at all.

The Government’s flagship ambitions for health and wellbeing at work are still forging ahead, as outlined in the Government’s Improving Lives: The Future of Work, Health and Disability roadmap, Good Work: the Taylor review of modern working practices, and Thriving at work: the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers.

Granted, much will rely on employer good practice rather than a Government stick or carrot, but forward-thinking employers completely get the link between productivity and a healthy, happy workforce in any case and are already working towards creating a “good work” environment and encouraging better health behaviours. (I say “forward thinking” but this link has been acknowledged since philanthropists such as Rowntree, Cadbury and Fry so perhaps “enlightened” is more apt.)

Mental health is key

The Improving Lives: The Future of Work, Health and Disability roadmap outlines what we in the group risk industry have known for some years now: mental health conditions are a major reason for absence. In fact, we have consistently seen mental health conditions as a top cause of claim under group income protection policies, on or near a par with cancer[1].

The UK’s economy is heavily reliant on mental capacity but, as a nation, we are not taught how to deal with stress or mental ill health and people who are suffering have to wait weeks or even months for help. We don’t do that for a broken leg so why is that the case for a broken mind?

Employers can pick up the baton here to support both their people and their business. The cost of mental ill health to employers outlined in the Stevenson/Farmer review (between £33 billion and £42 billion a year) should, in itself, be a sufficient driver for change. So now is the time to start looking at any current provision/support already in place, and considering what more can be done to meet the mental health core or enhanced standards set out in the review.

The bigger picture

Employers have a huge role to play in getting help to their people so it’s worth taking a step back and scrutinising what’s included in any benefits already offered. Most benefits packages have evolved piecemeal over the years, so it pays to look at everything and not just component parts. Considering duplications, overlaps, gaps and different ways of engaging with providers can free up money to introduce new initiatives.

For example, group risk providers have worked hard over recent years to give value on a daily basis so most group risk products (life assurance, income protection and critical illness protection benefits provided to employees through the workplace by their employers) will come with additional support services intended to complement an employer’s health, attendance and wellbeing programmes.

For employees, these can include an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), preventative support, fast-track access to counselling or physiotherapy, early absence interventions, a second medical opinion and more. For employers, support can include HR and employment law advice, legal document-writing systems, absence management, telephone support for difficult situations, mediation and others.

Group risk support is also moving forward to include help in encouraging better health behaviours, for example giving access to GP services, health tracking apps and mental health support for staff.

The same is true of healthcare provision (private medical insurance, cash plans, etc) so it’s well worth expending the time to understand what comes along with your purchase that can be useful in supporting your business, line managers and workforce and your benefits adviser will be more than happy to help you with this.

The role of coaching

It is predicted that three quarters of all deaths by 2020 will be from chronic disease. People with long-term health conditions account for 50% of all GP appointments, 70% of all inpatient bed days and 70% of overall NHS spend. The number of people with three or more long-term conditions is predicted to rise by a million to 2.9 million by 2018 [2].

Health coaching is seen as the way forward for the NHS as a new way of working with patients to increase self-confidence, self-care, decision making and lifestyle change, leading to self-efficacy in reaching health goals. It is designed to help those who wouldn’t normally take action themselves, as well as supporting those who need help and is worth considering as a workplace offering. Think of it as deploying something smarter and more targeted, according to need.

Leading by example

Changing health behaviours has to come from the top. It’s no good encouraging staff to take a break when line managers eat lunch while still working at their desks. Conversely, staff will feel more comfortable going to take some exercise, if they see their chief exec heading out to the gym at lunchtime.

People need a sense of permission, so wrapping a brand around making health changes can make it more cultural, as can generating evidence/testimonials and seeking out champions to take an active role in encouraging action for change.

Finally, this is an investment in the business!

Investing in the health and wellbeing of a workforce can be a leap of faith but perhaps it helps to view it as an investment in the performance of the business akin to (say) the training budget or an investment in new equipment. Only then will the business view it as essential rather than an airy-fairy nice to have.

[1] Group Risk Development (GRiD) Claims Surveys 2014 to 2017

[2] Health Education England

Katharine Moxham  – Group Risk Development (GRiD)

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