DIRECT costs to British industry of sickness at work are running at pounds 13bn per year - around pounds 12,000 per company per year, according to the Wellness Forum, a group of leading UK companies actively promoting health in the workplace.

Andrew Randall, general manager, corporate division, PPP, the UK's second largest private medical insurer and member of the Forum, said the actual size of the problem is 'probably vastly greater than estimated, because in most cases companies undermonitor their absenteeism rate'.

The Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, recently told a Confederation of British Industry conference: 'In 1979, strikes cost the country 29 million lost working days; today we lose twice that amount through alcohol-related and tobacco-related illness every year.' The Forum supports this, saying some 8 million days are lost through alcohol and drink-related diseases, costing industry pounds 1.7bn, while an estimated 50 million days are lost annually because of smoking-related diseases.

These figures are alarming, but are they avoidable? The Government believes so, particularly with the recent budget initiatives to make employers directly responsible for employee sick pay. As part of its Health of the Nation White Paper, the Government has also been promoting employee health programmes, offering incentives.

'In the US, the concept of corporate wellness programmes are well established,' Peter O'Malley, vice chairman of the Wellness Forum and occupational health manager at J. Sainsbury, explained, 'mainly due to the cost pressures of their private health provider system. A US employer will get a reduction in insurance rates for non-smoking employees, for example.' Mr O'Malley believes wellness programmes will be the future trend.

The Wellness Forum, launched in 1992, plans to play a leading role in promoting employee wellness programmes in UK businesses. Its membership boasts names such as BMI Health Services Division, British Coal, British Telecom, Giro Bank, Glaxo, IBM, J. Sainsbury, Kleinwort Benson, Marks & Spencer, Nestle UK Ltd, Polaroid, and Royal Mail.

A spokeswoman for the Forum said: 'In Britain, companies are adopting different approaches in encouraging positive healthcare among their employees. Some companies employ full-time occupational health staff, some offer discount membership to gyms and some pay for private insurance. It really depends on the size and resources of the company.'

DMM Engineering, which employs 90 people, spends about pounds 5,000 a year on employee health promotion. Their efforts include offering nicotine patches for free to any employee trying to give up smoking, a choice of healthy foods in its canteen and sponsoring a company football team. DMM recently won a CBI Wales/Health Promotion Authority award.

Mr Randall said: 'Even small organisations can offer wellness programmes at minimum cost. Simple measures such as providing a bicycle rack so employees can cycle to work are a step in the right direction. Sutton Borough Council pays its staff a bonus to cycle to work.'

Last month, the Wellness Forum bestowed its first PPP/Wellness Forum Working for Health Award. The competition highlighted some of the best corporate wellness programmes in Britain. Companies were judged on management commitment to wellness and on the impact of their scheme on the workforce not in financial terms, but in effect on staff health.

The winner, Du Pont (UK) Ltd's Northern Ireland branch, employs around 1,000 people, mostly men aged 40-50 - a high health risk group, according to the company doctor, Gerry Walpole. Dr Walpole said: 'When you have people active in looking after their own health, absenteeism would be about 2.5 per cent, which is low by UK standards,' but when the employees are managing their own health, and are aware of the risks to their health, absenteeism decreases still further.

'Human resource management has tackled pay, equal opportunities, training and employee involvement, but until recently, occupational health has been the missing piece in the corporate jigsaw,' said a CBI spokesman.

The writer is editor of 'Biotechnology Business News' published by Financial Times Newsletters, and co-author of the FT report, 'Healthcare Systems: Cost vs Quality'.