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The View on Employee Health is changing

When I started my career the general sentiment was that general employee health had nothing to do with the business of a company. It became only the concern of the company when it was directly linked to the job or when there would be a liability.  So companies limited corporate health programs to the management of health risks. It was all about prevention of professional diseases and work accidents. The target of internal prevention officers was to avoid accidents, lower health risks. It was all about safety, security, compliance, risk management. There was hardly any talk about employee health.
Employees with health and subsequent productivity issues  could find their way to the social security system, either in unemployment, early retirement or in invalidity.  Companies did not feel responsible. There was no reason to.
The fight against occupational health hazards is not over. The ILO keeps this on the agenda. And rightfully so. But there’s a need for a broader view on employee health.

Absenteeism on the Rise

We see absenteeism due to illness on the rise. Especially the long-term absenteeism is increasing. More and more people seem to exit the arena of work because of illness. This could be related to the ageing population. Older people have a low-frequency illness but when they are ill the absence is longer. But there is more. We see burn-out on the rise. And this not only linked to work.
Professional and private life are intertwined. We cannot separate both when we talk about mental health. The health situation at home influences the health situation at work and vice versa. So employers should not pretend that they have nothing to do with health issues that might have their origin in the private life of the employees.
Wherever the cause of the health problem lies, it influences engagement and productivity. So employers do have an interest in promoting healthy behaviours (both in private and in professional contexts) and in helping employees to deal with their health issues. Looking for early indicators of health issues could improve the general health situation in the company and in society.

The Business Case

Improving and promoting health has a clear advantage for businesses.

  • Absenteeism is lower. In countries where companies have to pay the salary during the first month(s) of illness will see less productivity losses.
  • Healthy people have more energy and perform better.
  • Healthy people will be able to work longer and maintain productivity levels long after the legal age of retirement.

So companies have a clear interest in investing in health. See also this article in HBR.

Limited Responsibility

There is always responsibility but like aways that responsibility is limited. A company cannot force someone to change living habits. A company cannot intervene in the cause of mental problems when they find their origin in domestic issues. A company cannot judge decisions taken by the employee that have an impact on current or future health issues.
But a company can create awareness about health issues. A company can look for early signs of health issues through medical check-ups, trained leaders that recognise health warnings. A company can give support in case of problems through employee assistance programs, psychosocial support and health monitoring. And a company can nudge people into healthy behaviours.
Health promotion at work is totally different from prevention. Prevention is avoiding something negative. Health promotion is shaping the future by offering contextual support that improve the sustainable health of people. A company can only benefit from people in good health. And so does society.
So there is more than a business case for employee health.

Shared Responsibility

A source of inspiration for investing in a corporate health program goes beyond the moral or budgetary issue. Governments in Western-Europe see social security budgets under pressure. Increased illness and absence puts additional pressure on the bad budgetary situation. So governments will take action to force employers to deal with the problems. And probably they will resort to disciplinary force penalizing companies who have absenteeism figures that are too high. Unfortunately this will have an adverse effect. If companies are penalised because they do not perform well on the absenteeism scale, they will introduce other measures to avoid having sick people. This will lead to much more precarity. and moreover, companies are not the sole responsible for health issues. They are a sign of the times we live in. So why should it be that companies are held (solely) responsible for the budget deficit?
I am convinced there are other ways of tackling the problem. Rewarding companies who do well instead of penalizing them, could be one thing. Nudging people into healthy behaviours could be another. The authorities could help companies in finding ways to do health promotion at work. A corporate health program is much more than compliance. If it’s embedded in a societal approach, it might have a greater impact.
Check this 2014 report on absenteeism by The Economist.
Check also this O.C. Tanner Whitepaper on employee wellness and employee well-being.
Check this white paper by Securex on absenteeism (in Dutch).

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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