Special Report on Private Health: Fit workers for healthy profits: Wellness schemes make financial sense, says Andrew Bibby

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FOR ANYONE inclined to the view that companies are already overburdened by health and safety legislation, the idea that some firms want to do more to ensure their employees' welfare might seem extraordinary.

But for the growing number of firms that have signed up for staff 'wellness' programmes, the motivation is as much commercial as philanthropic. For Grand Metropolitan, Glaxo, J Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer and IBM - among the 35 firms that have become members of the Wellness Forum, founded two years ago by companies concerned about employee health, there is a belief in the correlation between a healthy workforce and healthy profits.

Doug Gummery of the Institute of Personnel and Development says: 'Employers in their own interests have got to maximise the use of people at work as far as they can. Absenteeism is very expensive.'

Just how expensive is suggested by the Confederation of British Industry, which has estimated the total direct cost of employee absence at pounds 13 billion a year and has described the task of improving workers' health as 'one of the major employment challenges of the 1990s'.

Cynics might argue that 'wellness' is simply an imported American term brought in to spice up the image of occupational health, but preventative health care must be an improvement on merely responding to ill-health.

The idea of maintaining good health in the workforce has really taken off since October 1992, when a small number of British firms cribbed an American term to launch the Wellness Forum. The Forum, which works closely with the Department of Health, runs quarterly seminars and informal meetings for its members.

Tim Biggs of the Wellness Forum says: 'Health screening for employees has had a high profile, and is one of the things that many companies have introduced.'

Campaigns against smoking and alcohol abuse have also figured highly, as have drives towards general fitness. But, according to Mr Biggs, some firms have taken an even broader approach. 'One company has promoted ways of driving more safely,' he says.

He admits, however, that there is still little evidence to prove a direct correlation between wellness programmes and corporate performance. 'We're very much in the early days,' he says.

However Nestle UK, another member firm of the Wellness Forum, argues that its development of corporate wellness programmes for employees has already paid off. 'We're finding that absence periods are decreasing, and have decreased over the last two-to-three years,' says David Batman, Nestle UK's group chief medical officer.

Nestle's initiatives have been developed through its existing occupational health service. A voluntary health-screening programme, run by nurses in work time, was introduced about five years ago and is free to all employees. David Batman says take- up has been encouraging: 'On one site, 98 per cent of staff took it up and the average is about 78 per cent,' he says. The company also provides fitness centres at two of its largest sites, for staff to use in their own time, and has also run weight control programmes.

David Batman is clear that to be successful, wellness programmes require board-level understanding and support. 'It's about the company culture saying 'we value you as employees'. It's open to all employees', and not an executive perk,' he says.

Du Pont (UK), whose Northern Ireland plant was awarded first prize in a recent competition run by the Wellness Forum, says that its Health Horizons programme is designed to cover both mental and physical health. The programme comproses personal health appraisals and a three-yearly personal risk assessment, and also includes in- house campaigns on issues such as smoking, cholesterol control and weight control. Du Pont says that more than 60 per cent of staff of about 1,000 have participated, from every level of the company.

Wellness programmes can be seen as the sort of good personnel practice caring employers would want to consider. However, there is another point for companies to bear in mind, one which the CBI identified in its booklet Working for your Health, published last year. In recent years there has beena growing trend of legal action against employers for work-related illnesses, including areas such as passive smoking and stress which are not covered by legislation on health and safety. The many claims for compensation for repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and upper limb disorders are a reminder of the problems that can face employers, especially those who cannot demonstrate that they have adequately anticipated health hazards for their staff.

Insurance companies - who ultimately pick up the tab on employers' liability insurance claims - are also requiring more evidence from companies that they are taking reasonable preventative measures to protect employees' health. In other words, the reason for introducing a corporate health programme for your staff may not simply be benign paternalism.

Companies that have embraced the wellness concept, however, tend to view it in a positive light. 'If people at work are fit, healthy and well, there is a benefit for them and also a benefit for us. It's a two-way thing,' says David Batman.

(Photograph omitted)