It is a fact that healthy people are absent less and make fewer insurance claims

Why is it that three employees can wake up on Monday morning feeling under the weather, yet two manage to get into work and the other one doesn't?

The healthcare sector has long sought to adopt an approach to the problem through sophisticated systems involving call centres manned by medical professionals, development of employee assistance programmes and an ever greater focus on stress management once it is diagnosed.

However, new thinking is emerging to challenge this, focusing on preventing the cause rather than curing the effect.

It seems the healthcare industry might be waking up to a new dawn as wellness programmes present a logical and viable solution to employee health and rehabilitation.

As employers grapple with the combined issues of increasing cost of providing healthcare services, higher employee expectations and the pressures of recruitment and retention, while trying to deliver a simple, hassle-free, healthy workplace, wellness is the emerging theme.

Involving staff in a wellness programme motivates, improves workplace health and drives down stress claims linked to disillusionment and disengagement.

Research, such as the 2004 survey by Discovery Health, revealed significant reductions in claims costs where staff adopted a wellness programme.

It may sound David Brent-like but it is a fact that healthy people are absent less and make fewer insurance claims.

While some human resources directors feel this assertion is an unattainable dream, the trend towards employee self-responsibility is taking hold.

In fact, many companies now view wellness programmes as a competitive advantage in the retention and recruitment of high-quality staff.

But what is meant by wellness and engagement of staff? How is it achieved? How does the logic work? It's not just about offering gym membership and thinking the problems will disappear.

Engaging staff in their own health first and foremost requires a fundamental understanding of them: their age, lifestyle, attitudes and personal circumstances.

Only by undertaking thorough employee research can a full and accurate picture of the workforce be established.

Once the main issues among staff have been identified, it is essential to introduce programmes that address them and prevent them becoming problematic, leading to absenteeism or a claim. Along the way the programme should provide support services to lend encouragement.

Does this all sound too good to be true? Maybe. But there are never any overnight solutions. It takes time for these types of initiatives to begin to have an impact on long-term illness, rehabilitation and insurance expenditure. IT

' Phil Barton is group commercial director of the Jelf Group