The pros and cons of workplace wellness schemes in the UK

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April 27, 2016

The pros and cons of workplace wellness schemes in the UK 

The situation

We spend a lot of time at work and a lot at our desks. This is unhealthy. An estimated 1.2 million people who worked in 2014/15 were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by work. Around 80% of the new work-related conditions in 2014/15 were musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression or anxiety (LFS). The direct costs of employee absence to the economy are estimated at more than £14bn per year according to the CBI.

So what is a Workplace Wellness Scheme?

Historically, employee health has fallen under the health and safety banner and has been limited to occupational health related interventions for injuries or illnesses acquired while at work. More recent initiatives have begun to challenge this relatively restrictive view of employee health, advocating an expansion of health and safety programmes to encompass a more holistic approach to wellness, to be proactive rather than reactive.

The 3 main pillars of Workplace Wellness
  1. Health and safety: These interventions are driven by government policy initiatives and shaped by statutory requirements.
  2. Management of ill health: These interventions focus predominantly on ‘reactive interventions’ and include occupational health, rehabilitation, long-term disability management, return to work schemes and absence management programmes.
  3. Prevention and Promotion: There is a range of interventions that could fall under the prevention and promotion banner, including: health promotion activities, work/life balance, time management schemes and primary care management.

Benefits of workplace wellness schemes

Benefits of workplace wellness schemes

Increasing engagement

There has been a growth of engagement; 21% from 2013 to 42% in 2014 of senior leadership who are actively promoting health by using outbound communications to their staff. Over a third of companies (37%) are using schemes based on peer-based champions to promote programmes and initiatives while only 16% have no active promotional activities.


PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP was commissioned by the Health Work Wellbeing Executive in 2007 looking at 55 UK Businesses who implemented Wellness initiatives. As the chart illustrates reductions in sickness absence & Staff turnover were 2 of the major benefits.

The survey then went on to look at 7 case studies in terms of a benefit-cost ratio (BCR), for their wellness programmes. This ratio below shows the nominal return for every unit of cost expenditure. The Call Centre Physiotherapy programme ratio of 34 illustrates that for every £1 spent the organisation recovered £34 in programme benefits.


Benefit cost ratio by industry

Benefit cost ratio by industry

Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is for the provision of such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees.

It is the employer’s legal obligation (EU Directive 90/270/EEC) to organise annual Workstation Risk Assessments. Additionally from 1st January 2015 the Government introduced a tax exemption of up to £500 (per year, per employee) on medical treatments recommended to help their employees return to work.

Britain’s Healthiest Company & other Company ideas

Insurance company Vitality Health runs a yearly competition to find Britain’s Healthiest Company and in 2014 Old Mutual won as the healthiest small company. Old Mutual’s employee assistance programme includes counselling on topics ranging from housing and debt to care responsibilities and bereavement, with referrals to healthcare staff and confidential advice included.

Fitbit the company behind the fitness trackers, which a lot of office products sellers stock, run their own “Workout Wednesdays,” a day devoted to fitness where employees can participate in various workouts throughout the day. And, of course, utilises its product by running quarterly
step challenges.

Fitbit office

Addressing the major types of illness

In the UK 12.5% of all sickness absence days are estimated to be attributable to back pain. Ergonomic products do a good job in preventing some of these instances and it is the employer’s legal obligation (EU Directive 90/270/EEC) to organise annual Workstation Risk Assessments. The company Fellowes is a good example of a company whose product development is supported by comprehensive research. They offer a full range of workstation ergonomic products including back supports and wrist rests.

The Pros & Cons in having a Workplace Wellness Scheme

The key benefits are:
  1. They are proven to keep your staff in better health. Even the toughest of bosses is going to want this!
  2. Reduces the loss of a valuable resource. Sickness will affect getting work done on time for customers, especially challenging in smaller Businesses who don’t have people to cover for those off sick.
  3. Creates staff loyalty. Employees who are cared for will stay at a company longer, which benefits the business as they retain experience and reduces downtime and the cost of replacing staff.
  4. Saves money. Sickness pay has to be given out in most instances.
  5. Branding. They allow you to differentiate your company to potential Employees and Customers
  6. The wider Society. A workplace wellness scheme that positively affects the life of just one employee can save the NHS on earlier medical treatment, and when repeated across Businesses can add up to some substantial savings for us all.
The downsides are:
  1. You have to spend some time investing in the process
  2. You need to be serious about it, implementing half-heartedly will be received negatively
  3. Costs of implementation and ongoing maintenance.
  4. There is only so much you can do to help, as an employer – even the best laid plans will not help someone who continues to eat badly!
  5. Results are not always immediate- healthiness is not something that everyone achieves in a few months
Whatever you decide for your Business, please share this with key people in your organisation to start the discussion.


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