Corporate Wellness in Europe and Management of Chronic Illness

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A healthy employee makes a healthy business. This statement holds true for all employers who intend not only to improve the health of their workers but to boost the profitability of their business.

Employers worldwide have begun to see how good employee health has a direct impact on the administrative cost, profitability, and viability of their business.

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain syndromes, and diabetes constitute the commonest causes of employee absenteeism, presenteeism, and reduced work performance. Employers can play a good role in preventing and combating some of these diseases.

Health at a Glance: Europe 2016 reported that the early deaths of 555,000 European Union citizens of working age resulting from chronic diseases cost the EU about EUR 115 billion every year, with this value accounting for 0.8% of the GDP of EU economies.

In EU countries as well, 1.7% of the GDP is expended on paid sick leave and disability. This figure, it is estimated, is more than what’s spent on unemployment benefits.

Staff absenteeism disrupts business operations and is estimated to cost UK employers £29 billion every year according to a report by PwC and according to the Annual Survey Report of 2015, the average UK employee takes 6.6 days off yearly due to illness and disability.

Furthermore, the survey report showed that the level of absenteeism across the UK is 50% higher in public organizations than in the private sector making the cost significantly higher in the public sector than for private employers.

If European employers invest more in prevention and conservative measures that enable people with chronic diseases to lead healthier lives, the benefits would include retained human resources and capital, reduced costs of staff turnover, and improved work performance.

A study by Oxford Economics in 2014 reported that replacing a member of staff in the UK costs an employer an average of £30,614, and this figure accounts for agency fees, logistics in recruiting a new employer, payment for temporary staff before replacing the departing employee, and the cost in wages paid to the newly employed staff member before they become fully productive.

“The Health at a Glance report provides useful information for member States to shape their actions on health across all policies. It shows that in the EU many people die every year from potentially avoidable diseases linked to risk factors such as smoking or obesity.”  Said European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis in an interview after the launch of the report in Brussels.

“It also highlights the need to continue our efforts in making sure that health care becomes more accessible. The report represents the flagship of the partnership between the Commission and the OECD to develop country-specific and cross-country knowledge on health and health systems, as the first step of the ‘State of Health in the EU’.” Andriukaitis added further.

These are the reasons, in addition to promoting employee health, in the long run, European employers are taking a more proactive stance on employee health and have begun to invest in employee wellness programs.

“What employers are really interested in is a healthy workforce today,” says Natalie-Jane Macdonald, UK manager of BUPA. “But the things they do also help individuals to be healthier as they move into old age.” She added.

In the past in Germany, employers fired workers who reported sick instead of improving their health conditions. After much assessment of the costs of these actions and of poor employee health, they set a new course of action.

“That has changed completely. Employers [now] ask us to analyze absenteeism and create prevention programmes. We have done so for thousands of companies and they are working quite successfully.” Says Professor Nobert Klusen of Techniker Krankenkasse in Germany.

BMW has also embraced employee wellness as a way to boost its productivity. The luxury car company observed in 2007, that its employees in its Dingolfing plant located in Bavaria who were in their late thirties would be in the late forties over the next decade, so they developed research into how they could re-invent their production such that older workers remain healthy to keep working.

BMW provided adjustable workable, easy exercises programs, softer floors and surfaces, and more comfortable work shoes for the research involving 41 volunteer workers. The results were remarkable. Absenteeism due to days taken off due to sickness reduced from 7% to 2% and significant financial benefits were recorded for the company.

After the research ended, the workers returned to their previous working lines. Since then, the care company has set up wellness initiatives to promote staff health.

Another successful wellness initiative was that developed by Unilever. The UK company launched a wellness initiative called “Fit Business” in 2009 and revealed a 19% decline in days taken off work due to illness and a 26% reduction in the incidence of obesity as well as a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases.

The initiative involved health education programs where simple advice on nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits were discussed. This initiative also made free health assessments with explanations to each employee on the results of what is being measured.

“Many more lives could be saved if standards of care are raised to the best level across EU countries,” said Angel Gurria, the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) while launching the report.

Experts say the benefits of wellness programs for employees are mostly seen in the long-term evaluation. They note that key features of a working wellness program include flexibility, respect for employee privacy, compatibility with the work environment, convenience, and consistency.

One major challenge with wellness programs is privacy issues. With regards to this, the European Union’s Article 29 Working Party issued a ban, in June 2017, on employers providing workers with wearable devices that collect health records of patients for wellness purposes. This is in a bid to protect employee privacy.

Supporters of the rule say it is in the interests of both the employers and employees, ensuring that the latter still maintain quality performance at the workplace while still practicing healthy lifestyle habits.

By and large, employers play a crucial part in keeping employees healthy while working for their organizations. It benefits both parties in the long run.

“You won’t get wellness and health promotion through a national health service, because they are focused on paying for illness, not on keeping people healthy,” says Sean Sullivan, chief executive of the Institute of Health and Productivity Management “But at the corporate level, they have a direct incentive to head it off.”

To learn more about corporate wellness and disease management in Europe, click here.