Healthy employees are the heartbeat of a successful business

22 February 2024 5 min. read
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As the UK’s economic struggles continue, businesses must find productivity gains wherever possible to keep their heads above water. Eman Al-Hillawi, CEO of UK consultancy Entec Si, explains how caring for employee wellbeing could be an essential, overlooked method to improve performance for many firms.

New research from the Financial Times (FT) and Vitality has revealed that employees lost 20% of their working hours to ill physical and mental health in 2023. Increasing scrutiny of the relationship between wellbeing and productivity is underlining a growing need for businesses to cultivate a healthier work environment.

However, many people are not taking advantage of available support and the fallout from this is impacting business yields. If business health is to be sustained in the long term, operational and cultural change will be required to supercharge employee wellbeing.

Healthy employees are the heartbeat of a successful business

UK productivity has remained stagnant in the post-pandemic era. The reasons for this are manifold. Some investigations, such as the report published by the London School of Economics’ Programme on Innovation and Diffusion, have declared the absence of capital investment and upskilling responsible for the productivity gap that stretches between the UK and countries like France, Germany and the United States. Other studies tell a different story, one that links poor wellbeing to reduced worker productivity.

According to research from Deloitte, there are several reasons contributing to this downturn. This includes a lack of support for managers, failings to recognise when employees aren’t on form and the perception that leaders are not taking accountability for worker wellbeing. Sky high diagnoses of burnout are another factor. The weight of heavy workloads, perfectionism, lack of leadership support and presenteeism – where individuals continue turning up for work despite ill health – are common enablers of fatigue and low productivity.

The FT and Vitality study found that presenteeism was particularly common among young people. Typically, this demographic lose 48 per cent more productive time because of absence and presenteeism. People under the age of 35 are also more likely to suffer from depression and have difficulties adapting to the workplace.

Troubleshooting productivity problems

A conventional remedy that businesses might consider for mending the bond between wellbeing and productivity is to modify ways of working. Hybrid models have notoriously found popularity because of the flexibility they afford employees. Actively encouraging employee autonomy can help to maximise productivity. For instance, tasks that require more concentration are better suited to a quiet home setting whilst brainstorms and collaborative project work are often more fruitful in office or coworking environments.

Taking stock of the individual barriers to productivity can directly support employee mental health and outputs too. For example, considering the impact of the workplace on neurodivergent workers and taking action to accommodate individual needs will enable people to perform at their best. For some employees on the autism spectrum, working in a loud, busy office environment can become totally overwhelming due to sensory sensitivities which could have a negative impact on productivity and mental health over a sustained period of time.

To address this, businesses need to establish open lines of communication with individuals to understand their relationship with the working environment. Where do they work best? Is the current set up affecting their productivity or efficiency? How can environmental barriers be overcome?

Asking specific questions will ensure workplace change is informed and individuals are supported to fulfil their potential. Examples of impactful operational change can include workflow alterations or task swaps to give employees the opportunity to work optimally.

This approach is effective in tackling productivity barriers that stem from physical health too. Research has shown that 84 per cent of people who have not received menopausal support from their workplace say their symptoms had a mostly negative impact on their work. If businesses are to create meaningful change for this demographic, honest communication with affected individuals and an assessment of existing support measures is necessary for delivering tailored change. Introducing more flexibility to work schedules and absence allowance, coupled with shaping a culture that champions employee health, will prove more effective for supporting workers through ill health and could remove performance obstacles.

Culture of wellbeing

When it comes to championing employee wellbeing, cultural change is particularly instrumental. Self-care should be actively encouraged from the top down. This could involve entire teams taking short, outdoor breaks together or scheduling informal, virtual catchups throughout the week to minimise burnout.

Equally, in the interest of supporting employees experiencing mental and physical ill health, businesses should endeavour to establish different ways for people to communicate personal challenges. This could include regular one-to-one meetings with a line manager, nominating health champions or making time for natural team discussions to share experiences and even problem-solve barriers to productivity collaboratively. Health is a personal subject so it is important that people can open up about challenges in a way that is comfortable for them.

As part of this cultural change piece, businesses also need to ensure the relevant health interventions and support mechanisms are well signposted. Whilst often available, these resources can be overlooked by employees or even disregarded if they feel they can manage mental or physical health issues alone. Encouraging workers to empower themselves by asking for help is a formidable tool that should not be underestimated.

Despite being the driving force of most businesses, employees and their wellbeing can easily be swept under the rug of today’s fast-paced business landscape. Taking a few small steps to take care of your people and support their health needs could be the best business change decision you ever make.

Eman Al-Hillawi is the chief executive officer of business change consultancy Entec Si.