“Good workplace health is good business”, president of Cigna’s employer health business David Guilmette told more than 100 employers from around the world as he opened the first ever Cigna Foundation Global Healthy Workplace Summit and Awards last month.
The event claims to be the first dedicated to the recognition and promotion of better practices in global workplace health, and is a sign of the growing stature of the workplace wellbeing sector.
It is a field which has been growing significantly over the past decade, but nevertheless one which continues to face a number of challenges.
According to Guilmette, these difficulties are the same across all industrialised nations: escalating healthcare costs, ageing populations, a dramatic rise in chronic disease and limited resources, which is why he believes collaboration between countries is crucial.
For intermediaries based in the UK, what is happening in the rest of the world may not seem of paramount importance, but as more and more employers extend their global reach, having a health and wellbeing strategy that matches up to international benchmarks will be vital to their ability to compete globally.
“It is important to recognise that even if you are dealing with an employer in the UK, they might be part of a bigger organisation and be looking for ways to make their employee health strategy work for them in other countries,” says Ann Dougan, marketing director of Cigna UK HealthCare Benefits.
And Wolf Kirsten, president of the International Association for Worksite Health Promotion and one of the speakers at the summit, said the rise of globalisation means now is an exciting time to be in the workplace wellbeing field.
A global survey by employee benefits consultancy Buck Consultants shows there has been a steady increase in employers offering wellbeing programmes since 2007. The annual report found that in 2012, 49% of employers offered a global health promotion strategy, up from 34% in 2007.
And Kirsten said the movement has been further spurred on by recent work by the World Health Organization in recognising the potential of the workplace in improving health behaviours.
But despite this, Barry Hall, a principal at Buck Consultants, says two major challenges remain for employers: how to get employees to engage with wellbeing programmes, and how to measure programmes’ effectiveness.
A recent study conducted by Buck found that only 36% of employers with programmes in place say they have measured outcomes, while the figure for UK firms is even lower.
“Programmes are not being measured as much as we would hope,” says Hall. “There are some great examples out there, but we would like to see more and more employers being able to measure at least something.”
Programme measurement is crucial in demonstrating the business case for investment in health and wellbeing, and according to Dame Carol Black is an area where the UK is catching up with the US – often regarded as the most advanced nation on workplace wellbeing.
Dame Carol, former UK national director for health and work and co-author of the Sickness Absence Review, says when she first started work on workplace wellbeing she always had to look to North America to get examples of a good business case.
“I’m now delighted that at last in the UK we have a bank of business cases, so when someone says ‘I can’t make the business case’, I can pull an example off the shelf and say ‘go and look at this and tell me you can’t do it’,” she told the summit audience.
Another area where the UK is becoming increasingly advanced is psychosocial risk management – more commonly known as work-related stress management.
Stravroula Leka, associate professor in occupational health psychology at the University of Nottingham, says the UK is ahead of many other countries in this area, including the US.
“The Health & Safety Executive has developed management standards for work-related stress, which have been adapted and are now used in Italy, while many companies – such as BT – have developed their own approaches,” says Leka.
Firms in the US, meanwhile, are highly focused on healthcare costs – as they shoulder much of the country’s health bill burden – which means “they do not address organisational aspects of the work environment well enough”, says Leka.
Psychosocial work factors cover things like career development, interpersonal relationships, workload and decision making. Leka believes there should be greater focus on the opportunities these can bring rather than the downside risks – in other words, ensuring people’s work is manageable, meaningful and gives the right work/life balance in order to keep them engaged and happy.
The importance of psychosocial issues such as control at work was also emphasised by Dame Carol, who said mild mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions are “symptoms” rather than medical diseases and should not keep people out of work.
“The thing that keeps people out of work is quality of line management,” she said.
“Leadership and line management are of crucial importance and it is no use putting out fresh fruit and vegetables, offering bicycle schemes and a gym if [people] really dislike being at work.”
But while the UK may be relatively advanced in this area, experts say there is also much we could learn from other nations.
Alberto Ogata, president of the Brazilian Association of Quality of Life, says countries such as the UK and the US could learn from nations like Brazil the importance of looking at wellbeing in a holistic way rather than just addressing health risk factors such as cholesterol levels and obesity.
“It is very important to address mental, spiritual and intellectual dimensions to improve quality of life and social determinants of health,” he says.
He suggests companies should therefore be communicating with employees more on issues like aspirations in order to truly engage them.
And Dr Shyam Pingle, former president of the Indian Association of Occupational Health, also believes the UK could benefit from looking at other countries’ cultural attitudes.
He says while India has learnt a great deal from the UK, including the importance of safety and health to business, and how to deal with health at work in a more structured way, the UK could also learn much from India.
He says India benefits from a traditional belief in the importance of giving something back to society, and that the links between businesses and communities are becoming increasingly strong in the country.
Perhaps the most critical of the challenges shared across countries is the ageing population, which – in conjunction with the rise of chronic disease – Dame Carol identified as being particularly problematic for UK plc going forward.
“I don’t think it’s any use telling a worker at the age of 59, ‘you need to start taking your health seriously because we need you to work until 70’,” she says.
“That is totally unrealistic – I believe you must start engaging young people to be sustainable workers when they get their first job. We need to be maximising health, minimising ill health, enabling participation in work and extending working lives. That is absolutely our goal in this country.”
Singapore is one country which is facing a similar problem, with the median age of the resident population having risen from 34 in 2000 to 38.4 in 2012, and legislation recently extending working life from 62 to 65.
Eunice Yong of the Health Promotion Board in Singapore says upstream work is vital and much is being done to educate children on making healthy choices, while public agencies are also working to promote active living through town planning, by highlighting staircases at subway stations, for example.
So while the UK no doubt faces many unique challenges, it is clear much could be learnt from working together with other countries.
Let us hope that last month’s event is the beginning of a more collaborative approach not just for thought leaders, but insurers and intermediaries too.