Is spending on workplace wellbeing worth it?

25 June 2018

This article was featured in the July - August 2018 issue of the magazine.

Lisa Gillespie, human resources director at Moorepay, reveals the cost of workplace ill health and sets out ways to save on absence costs

Back in 2016, a House of Commons research briefing – Business statistics ( – noted that 99% of UK private businesses and thus one third of our workforce are employed by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The paper suggested that limited access to resources make some less likely to implement workplace initiatives promoting a health-based culture for employees.

When you consider that full-time employees spend one third of their waking hours in work the importance of evaluating how their health is managed becomes clear. But the National Health Service does not yet collect data on employment and health outcomes, despite being at the forefront on dealing with employees with work-related health issues.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which does gather statistics, published the following findings:

  • the annual cost to society in 2013 to 2014 due to workplace injuries and ill health (excluding cancer) was £14.3 billion, and

  • 137 million days in 2016 were lost to sickness absence in the UK.

These findings show that cumulatively the burden on the SME sector is substantial and there would be significant value in tackling the problem head-on. Regular readers may recall that in ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’ (see Issue 34 October 2017) I wrote about the findings of the Mental Health Foundation and that the government ought to take their results as a call to action to implement the recommendations of Dame Carol Black which have now been around for years. 

It is true that individually SMEs will struggle to make any impact on the alarming figures in HSE findings and so it must fall to government and other employers’ organisations to grasp the nettle and act to support employees and employers in the SME sector. 

In 2016, the Office for National Statistics found the following:

  • minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common reason for sickness absence in 2016, accounting for approximately 34 million days lost (24.8% of the total days lost)

  •  22% of sickness absences are caused by musculoskeletal conditions (including back pain, neck, and upper limb problems)

  • 11.5% of sickness absences – which is the next most common reason for sickness absence, resulted in 15.8 million days lost – were as a result of mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and serious conditions) 

  • self-employed people are less likely than employees to have a spell of sickness

  • the largest workforces report highest sickness levels

  • sickness absence is lowest for managers, directors and senior officials.

I’ll add a cautionary note to the last point. Senior staff are those most likely to burn out so good attendance does not always equate to good health. Signs of burnout include mood swings, feeling constantly tired and inconsistent achievement of tasks or projects. All of these can impact others in the workplace and therefore should be managed in the wider context. For example, disengaged teams can be a symptom of a manager in burn-out mode. If absence is higher within certain teams, consider if the manager is under too much pressure. 

More-so within SMEs, which may have small management teams or are owner-managed, burn out can directly affect the bottom line because of its impact on employees down the line. 

Whilst we wait for a robust plan at government level to support better wellbeing in the SME sector here are a few low-cost and effective means of better health management in work:

  • Regular 121s which encourage employees to talk about what would improve their working lives.

  • Ensure employees use their annual holiday entitlement and take advantage of family-friendly entitlements. Using holidays for non-holiday activities eats into rest time.

  • Make sure regular breaks are factored into the working day, particularly for monotonous or repetitive roles.

  • Educate employees about posture, breathing and dealing with stressful situations at work.

  • Ensure colleagues, managers and customers treat everyone in a respectful way. Do not tolerate bad behaviour from anyone with whom employees interact.

  • Remember that presenteeism can be a problem. If someone could pass on colds or other illness they should not be in work.

Just implementing these six small but simple changes can save on absence costs and the overall impact on your business.