Female worker holding yoga mat

The physical health and wellbeing of employees

Who is ultimately responsible?

Written by Samantha Jackson FAIM
6 minute read
Female worker holding yoga mat

It used to be a popular opinion that people’s personal health began at home and was the responsibility of the individual.

I’d like to challenge that thinking, starting by making the bold statement that we, as employers and business owners, have an onus on us to promote, provide and enable the good health of the individuals who work for us, regardless of our industry.

Why?  It’s quite simple. 

Let’s start with the understanding that, generally, many people spend more time at work than they do at home.

Even though there are still many work from home options around after the pandemic, the same hours are still spent working, regardless of the location. 

With a standard working week of five eight-hour days – not including travel time, our people are left with mere breadcrumbs of time before leaving the house in the morning.  

When they arrive home they usually dive straight into helping with homework, making dinner, bedtime routines and if we’re lucky, some grown-up time for watching the latest streaming release … or in many cases, catching up on work that didn’t get done during the day. 

The quality hours of our daylight time are spent working, with the personal time being taken in the ‘leftover’ hours of the day.

Not so much work-life balance

Sure, our workforces are compensated for the time spent in our employ … but when we’re asking people to give up the majority of their day and still requiring them to squeeze in their home life, personal time and health activities, and then return to work the next day happy, energetic, productive and engaged – something is going to give. 

Unfortunately, it’s usually people’s self-care and health regimes that are sacrificed when non-work time tasks are being allocated into an already crunched timeframe. 

We all know the drill and have likely been guilty of it ourselves – we give to others before ourselves, often to our own detriment.

Although many workplaces now have Mental Health First Aid and other excellent mental health programs and protections in place, it appears that physical health and wellbeing have been placed on the backburner.

Even with these quality programs in place, the evidence suggests that what we are putting into place hasn’t been adequately taking care of the bigger picture problem. 

Comparing the facts

For example, the Australian Human Resources Industry Workplace Survey 2019-2022 shows a significant decline in workers suggesting they were ‘living well, despite struggles’ from 52.1 per cent to 43 per cent, and a growing number of workers who reported they were ‘just getting by’ increasing from 26.7 per cent to 30.7 per cent with ‘really struggling’ increasing from 6.9 per cent to 9.7 per cent - despite almost every workplace having a mental health initiative in place. 

And this isn’t just about our workers at a team level – the report showed that our business leaders and those in management positions were least likely to be in the ‘consistently thriving’ category and more likely to be in the ‘living well despite struggles’ and ‘just getting by’ categories. 

Currently, approximately 34.1 per cent of workers report being able to confidently care for their wellbeing, representing a steep decline from 51 per cent in 2019.

Back in 2019, 47 per cent of workers felt extremely motivated to care for their wellbeing, with only 34.6 per cent stating the same in 2022. 

And yes, there was a health pandemic going on throughout this period, where there should have been an increased focus on employee health and wellbeing.  And yet, the numbers suggest almost exactly the opposite.

It's well-known that our mental health is strongly linked to our physical health, however, there has been a lack of emphasis on our workforce’s physical health and wellbeing because of the unfortunate correlation between ‘physical health initiatives’ and ‘weight loss’, a strictly taboo subject in any polite workplace conversation.  

And realistically, it’s about time the conversations around looking after our physical health changed to become more useful, practical and effective … and as far away from weight loss as possible.

When we are at our healthiest we feel amazing.  Almost unstoppable!  We have good mental clarity, our energy levels are high and consistent throughout the day, our coping mechanisms are strong, and we’re resilient and alert. 

We’re not relying on coffee and sugar to get us through our day, our moods are stable, we’re inadvertently taking fewer sick days and somehow, our workdays just become easier. 

We’re pleasant, engaged and productive. Why these aspects alone haven’t rung some bells for employers to focus on the physical health of the workforce is surprising … and a shame.  But there’s more.

Effects on the workplace

Let’s look at some facts, according to Worksafe Australia, Comcare Government Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration USA.

On average, 6.5 working days of productivity per employee are lost annually as a result of presenteeism, costing the Australian economy an estimated $35 billion.  

Samantha Jackson FAIM
Samantha Jackson FAIM

Mixing presenteeism with high job demands increases the risk of safety shortcuts and fatigue which further increases the risk of workplace injury, shutdowns and compensation. 

Woody Allen once said that 80 per cent of success in life can be attributed to simply showing up – however, in our workforces, this is rapidly becoming a very dangerous concept and one that is on the rise because, unlike absenteeism, presenteeism isn’t always apparent.

Interestingly, the annual cost of absenteeism to the Australian economy was $44 billion in 2014, with the most common workplace productivity losses being cited due to headaches, neck and back pain, fatigue and chronic (but largely preventable conditions) such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  

We all know that the increase in our stress levels presents itself as increased episodes of anxiety and depression.

However, stress also manifests physically as a reduction in quantity and quality of sleep, increased risk of heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders, along with poor immunity defence from various commonplace viral infections such as coughs and colds.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we can ‘disease proof’ our workforces.  But what we can do is help people to feel better. To be healthier. 

Not just for our productivity measures, but to benefit workers at home also. Isn’t that the best win/win situation we could ever hope for?

What organisations can do

According to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, it costs at least twice the annual salary to replace a worker at any level. 

Given these costs, employers should be looking to health and wellbeing initiatives to not only attract staff but to keep them for as long as possible.   

As far as the coveted employee engagement score goes, many articles by trusted advisors on LinkedIn and HR advisory companies list physical health and wellness as a trend to be adopted in 2023 and beyond.

And because not many companies have adopted physical wellness initiatives as yet, those that do will be regarded as employers of choice, pioneering the new way of holistic workplace programs.

Though some may say the cost of implementing such programs is prohibitive, please think about this. 

A 2009 US study showed that lost productivity costs are 2.3 times higher than the cost of implementing an effective wellness program, and on average every dollar spent in quality health programs returned a yield of $2.41 in direct cost savings. 

When I say it’s the ultimate win/win, I mean it. Even though the financial benefits to a company are clear, the potential to strengthen an organisation’s culture and build employee pride, trust and commitment is resounding.

The inherent nature of workplace health and wellness – a partnership between employee and employer – requires trust.  Because health is such a personal and intimate issue, investment in it can, when executed well, create an engaged, dedicated and productive workforce for many years to come.

Arbitrary gym discounts, food pyramid posters and 10,000 steps per day challenges are simply not enough anymore.

What people need is an education on how to achieve better health to help them function optimally under all conditions, and the support, encouragement and facilitation to do so.

Better health for their home life brings happier, healthier and more engaged and productive workers back to our workforces.

Isn’t that a win/win worth taking some responsibility for?