Ill-health in the workplace is on the increase and is adversely affecting business productivity. James Wallis highlights the need to take a proactive interest in employee well-being

As individuals, we are more health-conscious than ever before. We take a more active interest in our diet, such that many of us check the nutritional information on food labels and eat more vegetables, fruit and salads. But in the workplace, stress is on the increase which is causing a real problem for British employers.

According to Mind, the mental health charity, anxiety and stress are responsible for the loss of around 45 million working days a year, costing the UK economy a staggering £100 billion. In addition, unplanned absences puts undue pressure on colleagues who are expected to pick up the extra work.

But it is not just staff absences that are costing businesses. Members of staff can be present at work while not operating at full strength and research shows that people in poor health are 20% less productive.

According to Vielife, about 30% of the population can be described as being in poor health at any one time: they may be stressed, lacking in sleep, have low fitness levels or a bad diet. All these factors contribute to lower productivity.

Work related ill-health can happen in any organisation, large or small, and the actual costs are far greater than one might imagine. In addition to sickness absence and lost productivity costs, overtime payments, missed deadlines and the cost of recruiting and retraining staff are all negative consequences of employee illness.

The health of UK workplaces certainly needs attention. With ill-health on the increase, businesses and individuals need to act now to maintain a competitive edge as failure to act will clearly have an impact on performance, productivity and profit.

According to a survey conducted by Human Resources Magazine in May 06, more organisations than ever before are realising that health clearly has an impact on business.

Specifically they noted that more than 60% of organisations saw the health of their employees as a priority; one in four said it was a 'top' priority; more than half the companies surveyed said they were working to reduce the costs of ill health; and more than one in ten said they would like to reduce those costs but did not know how to.

Workplace initiatives to prevent absence was also a top priority for 44% of employers, with 40% saying the same thing about health initiatives to optimise performance as it is a fact that healthy people are more productive.

Clearly there is a willingness to do something about ill-health in the workplace, but what is the best approach to this growing problem?

Offering free gym membership, sports and social club facilities, fitness assessments, rooms for power naps and encouraging staff to take advantage of online access to qualified health and medical information are just some of the options available to managers.

Well-being and private medical policies are also popular with staff, and can help businesses reduce staff turnover.

Focusing on staff's mental well-being should also be considered - how you motivate staff and boost staff moral, as both have a significant impact on staff absence, recruitment and retention levels.

There are three other options worth considering, which may help tackle this growing ill-health problem. It is worth remembering that some employers choose to focus on providing benefits when staff are not well, while others focus on prevention rather than cure.

First, help people to manage minor health problems in work, before they become major problems resulting in absence from work. The early stages of stress, for example, may hinder a person from carrying out their job effectively in the short term. Providing access to appropriate treatment or counselling may help them remain in work.

Second, help people return to health following an absence from work because of illness. After a long-term absence, it is often difficult to return to work. Providing access to specialist support such as employment advice or offering flexi or part time work may help the employee settle back to work.

Lastly, help staff avoid work-related health problems. Providing telephone access to general practitioners, counsellors or easily accessed information on health, nutrition, fitness and stress management may help people to remain healthy. In addition, providing a good working environment such as improved lighting, plenty of water and controlling the room temperature can be implemented at fairly low cost.

Ill-health in the workplace is not about to go away and is having a huge impact on performance, productivity and profit. We need to reduce the levels of sickness or injury, caused or exacerbated by work, by focusing on employees' health and well-being now. Failure to do so will lead to higher staff turnover and absenteeism, increased recruiting and retraining costs and reduced productivity levels. IT

James Wallis is managing director of insurance third-party administrator PlusOne Services