Employers realise it pays to look after the health of workers

Blood pressure checks in the boardroom, cancer screening in the canteen, Reiki in reception – savvy Irish bosses are realising that money spent on a healthy workforce makes for a healthier bottom line.

Offering everything from flu jabs for frontline staff to heart and lung scans for the top brass, never before have employers been more interested in health. And with benefits including better employee engagement and morale, fewer sick days and increased productivity, it’s easy to see why.

Figures from employers’ body Ibec estimate that absenteeism in Ireland costs businesses €1.5 billion a year, or €818 per employee. And with more than 185,000 sick days recorded across all Government departments in 2011 at a cost of €27 million, it’s costing the taxpayer too.

It's no wonder the Irish Heart Foundation is telling employers that promoting a healthy workforce is not just good for the ticker, it's good for business.

"Physically active employees are more productive and the likelihood of workplace injuries is reduced by up to 25 per cent," says the foundation's chief executive, Barry Dempsey. "By investing in health promotion programmes in the workplace, companies can earn a significant return on investment of up to €2.58 for every 76 cents spent."

Technology giant HP is one employer that’s taking the link between employee health and productivity to heart. Employing over 2,000 people at sites in Leixlip, Sandyford and Galway, the company is this month offering free on-site skin cancer screening to all its employees.

"Last year we kicked off with 'the Power of Pink', which was breast screening for all employees and their families," says HP's HR country manager, Janine Breen. Some 365 women – 264 employees and 92 spouses – availed of the scheme. Of that number, 21 were referred for mammograms of which all the results were clear.

There followed a prostate-screening programme for male employees in which 285 staff participated. Breen says there were 15-20 referrals for further tests and one employee who was diagnosed with prostate cancer is currently undergoing treatment.

Health education
She says the company prides itself on bringing health education and medical expertise to its employees and aims to educate staff about looking after their own health. This in turn improves their engagement at work, she says.

“Wellness for us plays a significant role in employee satisfaction and engagement, productivity and company performance. The more engagement we have at an employee level, the higher our productivity.”

The current skin cancer-screening scheme is funded at a global level by the company and is in addition to employee health insurance. Up and running for a week and a half, four employees screened for skin cancer have so far been referred on for further treatment.

HP is not alone in its focus on employee health. Many Irish companies participating in the Great Place to Work awards, a competition that celebrates workplaces that look after their employees, boast employee health programmes that far exceed basic health insurance.

Business software company SAP Ireland offers employees heart rate monitoring to flag stress-related health risks. Waterford-based biotech company Genzyme enlisted a clinical psychologist to deliver a resilience management course to staff to improve their psychological and emotional wellbeing.

Employer commitment
Occupational health physician Dr Lynda Sisson says while some budgets for employee wellness programmes may have been dented by the recession, there has been no decrease in employer commitment to health promotion.

Many companies are just being more targeted in what they do. Her company, Corporate Health Ireland, can match its medical assessment programmes to an employer's budget and to the demographic of staff.

“We would check employees for body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, PSA [use to detect prostate cancer] and diabetes. We can do a urine analysis as well and we provide questionnaires on health, nutrition and stress,” says Sisson.

She says such health promotion has definitive benefits for employees and brings longer terms benefits to their employers. “Employers may not be able to measure the benefits immediately, but they will come further down the road.”

But companies that provide once-off health and wellness events without changing the work practices that can sometimes trigger ill health are wasting their time. An example is a company that hires a stress-management expert to lecture employees without actually tackling the root causes of the workplace stress.

“If an employer is going to offer something like stress management advice, it’s going to have to be part of a programme to address those issues. That might mean offering employees flexibility at work, or giving them more control over their hours,” says Sisson.

“If someone is particularly stressed at work, it might mean reducing their working hours for a period of time, temporarily taking away some of their responsibilities or rotating those in stressful public-facing roles.”

Medical tests
She says the other pitfall is that workplace medical tests are not always perfect, so employers should fully research those they hire to carry them out.

“You can get a false alarm like a raised prostate test that causes stress and anxiety,” says Sisson. “No test is perfect, every test will issue a number of false positives so you are potentially putting someone through a degree of anxiety and stress when there is nothing actually wrong with them.”

A test can yield a false negative too. “So you could also be reassuring someone falsely when there is something wrong with them,” says Sisson.

She says it’s critical companies hire health professionals that use the highest quality tests possible and follow international recommendations for screening.

The Irish Heart Foundation says that promoting an active workforce has the potential to reduce sick days by as much as 27 per cent and drive down absenteeism by up to 20 per cent, while simultaneously boosting the health of employees – so when it comes to investing in employee health, the numbers all add up.