Employee ill health: the cost to the British economy

Ill health has been estimated to cost the British economy approximately £77.5bn per year. UK employers can expect to pay an average of £500 per employee per year in sickness absence alone – writes Anthony Thompson, Lecturer in Business and Occupational Psychology at Coventry University in an article first published by InsiderMedia


Anthony Thompson Lecturer in Business and Occupational Psychology

In 2016 the ONS suggested that approximately 137m working days were lost due to employee ill health. These figures arguably lean towards the low side as issues such as presenteeism, reductions in productivity and lower work engagement can all have devastating effects on organisational performance. Whilst it is well known by employers that a healthy workforce can create a healthy organisation, a rather insidious disease has gradually crept into many workplaces over the past few decades; sitting disease. Increasingly, more and more job roles are becoming sedentary as a result of desk-based work and technology reducing the physical demands of many job tasks. Conservative estimates suggest that working adults spend approximately half of their working hours sat down with this figure sharply increasing for job roles such as receptionists and call centre workers. Long bouts of uninterrupted sitting have been linked to a whole host of negative health outcomes including; coronary heart disease, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis and certain cancers. Furthermore, there appear to be substantial psychological effects of long periods of uninterrupted sitting such as an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Given the substantial impact that sedentary job roles can have, not only on individual employee health but also wider organisational performance, it is clear that employers have a vested interest in supporting their workforce to become more physically active. However, this is often easier said than done. In comparison to well-known occupational illnesses such as repetitive strain injury, stress and musculoskeletal disorders, clear guidance on the prevention and management of sedentary behaviour in the workplace is still in its infancy. Whilst attempts have been made to produce guidelines for employers who are keen to improve the physical activity levels of their employees, such as those produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, many employers still feel that there is a lack of clear support in meeting their own unique business needs.

The lack of clear guidance has arguably led to an explosion of commercial products designed to monitor activity levels, prompt behaviour change and decrease overall sitting time within the workplace. The plethora of potential interventions can ironically make it more difficult for organisations to know which tools to use, a phenomena known as choice overload within the psychological literature (Diehl and Poynor 2007).  However, as occupational and health psychologists continue to delve into and explore our understanding of workplace health behaviours, evidence is emerging that organisational intervention can have a significant effect on levels of employee sedentary behaviour and physical activity (Thompson et al, 2019). The trick is to work out which interventions are effective. Research has shown that a variety of interventions including; walking groups, pedometers, health focussed websites, on-site yoga classes and on-site fitness centres can all be effective. The difficulty is that not all of these are viable solutions for every organisation. Additional factors such as financial costs, building constraints and time limits also need to be taken into consideration. So how then are managers and organisations meant to overcome choice overload?

One approach being explored by researchers at Coventry University to tackle this problem is the use of co-creation. Co-creation is a form of collaborative innovation drawing upon the knowledge and experiences of experts and organisational stakeholders to tackle issues of importance; such as employee sedentary behaviour and physical activity. In this approach employees and relevant stakeholders from within, across and outside of the organisation actively contribute to developing an understanding of what the key barriers being faced are, what the best solutions may be and how those solutions could be realistically implemented and evaluated. Knowledge and ideas are freely shared rather than being kept private and ideas are improved upon collectively via a series of interactive tasks; ranging from simple brainstorming to more advanced techniques such as photovoice. As more employee voices become heard, the organisation gains a rounded understanding of its own unique strengths and path to growth. This can lead to interventions being created which are highly tailored to an organisation’s specific needs, resources and strategy.

As the nature of work continues to centre around technology, it is unlikely that the trend towards less physically active jobs will abate. The physical and psychological health consequences, alongside the costly organisational impact of sedentary work makes tackling this issue of critical importance. Whilst a multitude of potential interventions exist; such as pedometers, yoga classes and on-site gyms not all of these will be viable solutions for every organisation. One approach which could be used to help develop interventions tailored to specific organisational resources, cultures and employees is that of co-creation. By involving employees from across the organisation to play an active role in identifying barriers, solutions and methods of evaluation, organisations can cut through the plethora of noise and create solutions which are aligned with their unique strategy, culture and ethos.

If you would like to know more about my work or the evidence I have referred to, please get in touch.

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