Significant evidence supports the link between wellbeing at work and productivity

The UK’s productivity is behind that of other countries. There is significant evidence supporting the link between wellbeing at work and productivity. Christine Hancock and Katy Coopershare expert insights on how to make the case for connecting wellbeing interventions with higher outputs.

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UK productivity – or lack thereof – continues to climb political, business and public-sector agendas. The Office for National Statistics estimated that output per hour worked in the United Kingdom in 2015 was 15.9 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. This is despite the July 2015 publication of a Government plan to increase productivity.

But it is puzzling that employee health and wellbeing’s impact on sickness absence and presenteeism is not front-and-centre in discussions about improving productivity.

This article provides ways to make this case: the evidence for action and how to embed wellbeing to improve productivity. It summarises discussion from an Expert Workshop, held in October 2016 by workplace health network C3 Collaborating for Health.*

Evidence for action on wellbeing at work and productivity

Significant evidence exists supporting the link between wellbeing at work and productivity – with wellbeing including physical health and mental wellbeing. ‘Good work’ (jobs that are skilled, autonomous, supported, secure, with good work–life balance, good income) is associated with better physical and mental health – and less absenteeism.

The evidence of the impact of tackling risk factors such as smoking, physical activity and obesity is also clear. A survey of 25,000 health workers found that those who smoked are twice as likely to take time off work, and a study of Transport for London found workers with obesity (BMI>30) take an average of three sick days more annually than those of normal weight (BMI<25), and those with severe obesity (BMI>35) take six days more. There are interventions that are recognised by NICE as effective, but workers are often not given access.

Being smart with the way that evidence is gathered (notably, building measurement in from the start) is key. Greater flexibility in ‘what counts’ is also needed. Although not all studies are academically robust, there are opportunities to make use of case studies and grey literature.

Finally, although organisations may not want to share their data (meaning much remains unpublished and un-peer-reviewed), data from within an organisation can be effective in persuading a board to act.

Making the case

A What Works Centre for Wellbeing survey found that people see wellbeing as important for productivity (both absenteeism and presenteeism). There is also a business case for action (improving the bottom line), a moral case (the ‘right thing to do’) and a taxation case (lost productivity and long-term sickness absence mean lower corporate tax returns and higher spend on long-term health-care and disability benefits).

But too often ‘health’ is seen as a cost, rather than an essential investment. There is a tension between the long-term investment in wellbeing and the financial squeeze affecting the economy.
Investing in a health-promoting workplace may be part of genuine corporate social responsibility, but the non-believers need to be engaged by clarifying the difference that good health can make.

Embedding wellbeing for productivity

Leadership is essential to embedding health within an organisation – through the involvement of the board, trade unions, senior management, line managers and peer leaders.

Role modelling is also important, both within an organisation and as an example to clients (eg trialling a health programme internally before recommending to others).

Strong leadership will bring wellbeing into wider business practices. For example, the current CEO of NHS England is prioritising the health of the NHS workforce.

The CQUIN (Commissioning for Quality and Innovation) system – which makes a proportion of health-care providers’ income conditional on demonstrating improvements in quality and innovation – has been expanded to include employee health requirements. This provides an incentive for NHS Trusts to demonstrate their impact on areas such as physical activity.

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