Guest Blog: Positive impacts of a healthier workforce | Incentive&Motivation

By Gareth Jenkins, Managing Director of DS Smith’s UK Packaging Division

Businesses and the HR teams that support them have many kinds of ambitions that they are hoping to bring to fruition each year and, in my view, one of the most rewarding and worthwhile aims would be to further promote health and wellbeing programmes in the workplace.

Most organisations have health and safety policies, and, as a manufacturing business, we take safety extremely seriously at DS Smith. We operate a programme called ‘Safe Systems of Work’ and since its introduction two years ago we have seen safety standards improve by 25% each year. However, in many organisations the reality is that the ‘safety’ dominates these policies, and initiatives relating to employee physical and mental health often fall by the wayside, but at what cost does this come to a business?

According to the Health and Safety Executive, 23.3 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health in 2014 – 15, the equivalent to each employee suffering from ill health taking 19 days off a year. This clearly has a negative effect on an individual’s quality of life, but it also has a wider impact on health services and the economy, with NHS England estimating that this costs employers and tax payers around £22 billion a year. Furthermore, research by the Department for Work and Pensions indicates that almost 50% of the UK workforce will be 50 or over by 2024. This, coupled with the removal of the fixed retirement age five years ago, points to the fact that the UK workforce is ageing and more people are suffering from long-term health problems.

Positive impact of a healthier workforce

When you consider these factors, they can have a huge impact on an organisation’s bottom line and it is clear that a healthier workforce has a direct correlation with increased productivity and more engaged and committed employees. I have always believed strongly that a healthier workforce impacts the business in so many ways; individuals are more engaged, real change happens at pace, our customers see a difference in the quality of their products – so it’s more than worth the investment.

Many organisations won’t hesitate to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a new piece of equipment but when it comes to investing in staff – who really should be a company’s biggest asset – they fail to do so as things like health and fitness programmes are deemed to be fluffy ‘nice to haves’ and many senior managers need to be convinced of the benefits of introducing wellbeing initiatives. Most HR professionals think differently, of course, but convincing the business can be an uphill struggle. It’s a short-term outlook that is not only damaging to existing staff members, but may also prevent the organisation from attracting the very best new recruits.

Supporting staff to introduce wellbeing schemes

According to research by the Corporate Leadership Council, emotional commitment has by far the greatest impact on people’s willingness to go the extra mile, rather than the more logical rational reasons. At DS Smith, one of our company values is to be caring and, while we have always been a caring organisation, it is only more recently that health and wellbeing have really come to the fore. For example, we’ve introduced a number of initiatives to try and encourage our staff to take a break from their work and to eat more healthily, including free fruit Fridays, making sure that there are healthy food choices in the canteens at our sites and introducing a policy where no one can eat lunch at their desk.

We have also enrolled all 30 of our sites across the UK into Heart Research UK’s Health Heart Mark award programme which gives our employees the opportunity to have their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, BMI and waist measurements checked – something that is in addition to the annual, more detailed health check days we run. In the same way that we pride ourselves on being flexible to meet our customers’ needs, we have also supported employees to introduce their own wellbeing schemes at a site level to encourage healthier lifestyles. What I find most exciting about this is how different sites have started initiatives to suit their needs – and we now have everything from walking, running and cycling clubs, to woodland walks, allotments and football teams.

While you cannot preach to people and it is ultimately up to individuals to decide if they want to get involved, we have found this to be the most successful employee engagement programme that we have ever run.

Leading by example

The senior management team at DS Smith strives to lead by example too. Last year, I led a team of my colleagues in a charity challenge where we travelled from our European head office in Brussels to our group head office in London by bike, kayak and foot, raising money for Cancer Research and Heart Research UK in the process. We covered 289 miles and staff from across all of our sites took part in a Step-a-thon to match the distances we were covering, something that we plan to make an annual challenge. But, not every senior manager needs to embark on quite such an epic challenge to inspire their employees. I don’t eat at my desk and always try to get out for a walk at lunchtime and hope that staff see me doing this and follow suit. Just doing one healthy action each week is a start but, I believe, the reason this has been so successful is because the senior management team at DS Smith has fully bought into the health and wellbeing programmes that we are running, while crucially – and in keeping with our overarching employee engagement strapline OWN IT! – staff have then been empowered to roll out the programme in the way that is most beneficial to them. Everyone knows this is not a fad, it’s not something we will stop tomorrow – it’s part of our DNA.

Introducing preventative health and wellbeing programmes fosters a broader culture of support and community, as well as boosting productivity, attendance and engagement, which is essential for a business to be successful and it baffles me that this is ignored. I would urge any team of senior managers who, as part of budget discussions, might be considering cutting ‘health in the workplace’ programmes to think again. I’m sure their HR team would echo my sentiment. Invest in health or your organisation risks paying the price further down the line.