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Is poor health driving the productivity crisis?

10 Jun 2019 By Dr Wolfgang Seidl

Undiagnosed health issues are hindering people’s ability to perform at work, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl

Britain is predicted to become the only large advanced economy likely to see a decline in productivity this year.

Economists continue to puzzle over why greater employment and more people working longer hours has resulted in consistently less output per hour, compared to all our major competitors. But there is one aspect of the puzzle that has been consistently overlooked until now: the impact of the health of the workforce on its ability to perform.

According to a major study of 158,000 people across 450 employers, the healthiest workplaces are not only able to reduce absence but also save an average of 11.5 days of unproductive time per employee a year, compared to a typical workplace. That equates to employing another five people per hundred already employed.

What’s particularly fascinating about the research is that even before they become noticeably unwell, poor health and undiagnosed illness are hindering the ability of people to perform at work.

Take diabetes, which affects four million people in the UK and which some employers have recently fallen foul of disability discrimination for failing to handle the issue sensitively in the workplace. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90 per cent of cases, is a condition that often develops due to poor nutrition and activity. Properly diagnosed and treated, most individuals with this diagnosis can perform well and contribute fully at work. But it’s estimated that there are 850,000 people with undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes, which if left untreated, causes individuals to experience fatigue, loss of concentration and even eyesight issues that can affect their ability to perform.

Similarly, the study found that employees with a poor diet were losing 3.5 days of productive time a year, while those with moderate to severe depression were losing 33 days of productive time a year. This could be reduced by 31 days if they were no longer depressed.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever attempted to improve the health of the workforce has found, the desire of employees to get healthier is not enough. Because there are three necessary conditions that all need to be in place for genuine behaviour change to take place: capability, motivation and opportunity. 

In practice, this means that if employees want to eat healthily but don’t have time to buy or prepare healthy meals, they won’t have the opportunity to eat well. Or if they want to improve their mental health but inadvertently continue to do things that undermine this, they won’t be able to boost their emotional wellbeing until they develop that capability. And if they want to use the gym but are hesitant to go because everyone there is already fit and toned, their motivation to work out will be diminished.

Employers who are serious about generating the productivity gains associated with boosting the health of their workforce are therefore applying the science of behaviour change to their wellbeing programmes. For example, by providing access to a gym and ‘prescribing’ free personal training where appropriate. Not only does this ‘prescription’ boost the individual’s motivation and opportunity to actually use the gym, but free personal training, at the real point of need, ensures they also have the capability to use it.

Of course, not all organisations will be able to afford this, but incorporating behaviour change into wellbeing programmes can be as simple as challenging people to get fit together, with one study showing the risk of an individual quitting is reduced from 43 per cent to just 6 per cent if they work out with a partner.

The upshot is that the health of the workforce is perhaps the single biggest factor employers have within their power to boost their productivity, so long as they strategically design programmes that genuinely empower people to get healthy.

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits

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