Workplace wellness programmes supporting employee health are often viewed as ‘nice to have’ extras, rather than vital elements of a HR strategy with a direct impact on the bottom line.

But the evidence tells us something different.

The costs of maintaining a workforce are considerable. And it’s a fact that healthy employees cost less to maintain.

When up to 300,000 people with mental health problems lose their jobs each year in the UK, that’s also a considerable absenteeism, recruitment and retention cost to businesses.

The hidden cost of mental health issues in the workplace

In the UK, mental health issues are the No1 cause of sickness absenteeism in the UK, with around half of long-term sick leave being due to related issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. But people are worried about stigma surrounding mental health issues, so 95% of employees calling in sick with stress will give a different reason.

In October 2017, the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers revealed that the cost to UK businesses of mental health issues was £42bn – that’s around £1,300 per head for every employee.

Healthy employees cost less to maintain

In the US, Johnson & Johnson was an early adopter of the idea that healthy employees were good for the company balance sheet.

Between 2002 and 2008 the company estimates that wellness programmes have saved $250 million on health care costs, returning $2.71 (or 271%)for every $1 dollar spent.

A study by Doctors Richard Milani and Carl Lavie looked at a random sample of 185 workers and their spouses. By the end of a 6-month period, of those who received exercise training and cardiac rehab (they were not heart patients at the start, but some were classified as high risk), 57% were converted to low-risk status. Medical claim costs had also decreased by $1,421 per person compared with the previous year.

In terms of the bottom line: every $1 invested resulted in a saving of $6, or 600%.

In other organisations where wellbeing and mental fitness programmes have been instigated, days lost through sickness have declined by 80%.

Healthy employees stay with their employers

According to the Harvard review, a study by Towers Watson and the National Business Group demonstrates that businesses with successful wellness programmes report lower employee attrition rates.

Put simply, in many cases, employees who take part in such programmes don’t leave – reducing recruitment costs and ensuring value from training and development.

What makes a successful wellness programme?

Let’s be clear here. We’re not just talking about gym membership and healthy eating posters.

Creating a healthy workplace culture takes consistent, persistent and passionate leadership. Leaders will need to demonstrate their own commitment to wellness.

Some organisations also ask middle management to adopt healthy lifestyle goals as part of their team’s business goals.

Expert Wellness Managers are vital – experts who develop and co-ordinate clear programmes throughout a business and measure it.

They are supported by Wellness Champions, usually volunteers who organise and promote events as well as offering local encouragement, education and mentoring. This is especially vital for companies operating in teams based over multiple sites.

For a growing number of companies whose employees are operating remotely (whether as part of their established business strategy or in response to the current, unprecedented situation), these volunteers may become even more essential. Remote workers, particularly in times of high anxiety, may be more at risk of some of the perils of home working – like feelings of isolation, stress or being disconnected from their team.

How do you encourage employee buy-in to a wellness programme?

Most organisations find that incentives work best, as employees who feel that they are being pressured lose trust and become resistant. Personally, I am huge advocate of giving people a choice and learning what is important to individuals within a workforce – rather than a board or HR team making up their own minds on what their employees need and want.  We can then build a programme catering to most preferences where each individual can have wellness options to choose from.

There needs to be a broad scope, along with relevance to the workplace. Successful wellness programmes go beyond diet and exercise, to encompass other lifestyle choices like smoking and alcohol consumption.

As we’ve seen, wellness is about more than physical fitness, with mental fitness playing a huge part.

Companies that have created successful wellness programmes have incorporated services that help people deal with issues arising from divorce, serious illness or bereavement, for example. Online programmes can offer a cost-effective and confidential way to help employees assess and track their own wellness progress and access employer-provided support and assistance.

If you don’t have the existing experience and know-how in your organisation for building employee engagement, wellness and mental fitness transformation programmes which deliver significant return on investment, then do contact me for a chat – that’s what I am here for.