The workplace physical wellbeing dilemma: the need to work in partnership to drive genuine change


The impact on business of poor employee physical health has become clearer than ever over the last year, both through the direct effects of Covid-19, and as employees struggled through lockdowns with inappropriately designed workspaces, limited exercise or poor sleep.

The workplace physical wellbeing dilemma: the need to work in partnership to drive genuine change

While the pandemic might have focused employers’ minds, many physical health risks such as inactivity were already present in the workplace and will continue to have a damaging effect on employees’ ability to perform at their best, even after Covid-19 has started to recede.

To drive genuine change, employers and employees need to work in partnership. Our research showed that businesses clearly believe they have a significant role to play in employees’ wellbeing, with almost a third (32%) saying that it is their responsibility to a great extent.

But, while we found that almost all (91%) of our respondents said that they have a physical wellbeing strategy, more than half are yet to see it have an impact on employee behaviour. Encouraging all employees to engage long-term with their physical wellbeing - not just those that are already fit - is vital to ensure that individuals and the organisation as a whole benefit over time.

But employers can’t do this on their own. Employees also have to be sufficiently engaged with their physical health to take responsibility for their own wellbeing – and just over half of our respondents said that a key priority for next year is to encourage employees to do just that.

As approaches to hybrid working continue to evolve and other aspects of working life are reshaped through digitalisation, shifting skills needs and globalisation, the risks posed to business by physical ill-health will also continue to change.

Musculoskeletal conditions are still considered to be the biggest risk factor for businesses, but the basics of poor sleep, nutrition and lack of exercise are also causes for concern. These are all crucial factors in preventing more serious health conditions, such as diabetes, in future. Employers can support good health practices by understanding workforces’ genuine needs, offering appropriate support and measuring impact over time.

However, measuring the direct impact that these factors have on business performance is still work in progress. While 57% said that their strategy has yet to have an impact on their employees, 38% said that they can’t or don’t measure the impact of their physical wellbeing benefits.

There is evidence that this looks set to change in the future. A small yet significant one in ten respondents said that they are now looking at quantifying the risks posed to their business by physical ill-health. That, in time should feed through to helping define exactly what types of support employees need, how to deliver it to them, and how to help them engage with their physical wellbeing over the long term to drive genuine, long-lasting change.

The author is Maggie Williams, content director at REBA.

This article is taken from REBA’s The Workplace Physical Wellbeing Dilemma research, carried out with the support of Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.


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