Invest in workplace mental health and wellbeing programs

Hot key for wellbeing

With Mental Health Awareness Month in October, Sally Kirkright, CEO of AccessEAP is calling on business owners and managers to introduce structured health and well-being programs into the workplace to reap the business benefits.

Mental health costs Australian employers $10.9 billion a year and absenteeism due to mental health results in a staggering 12 million days of reduced productivity amounting to $6 million dollars lost every year. Investing in the mental health of employees should lead to higher staff retention rates. A recent TNS global study found that a mentally healthy workplace makes an employee more committed to their job and less likely to seek alternative employment. It also showed that almost half of the employees surveyed have left a workplace because it had a poor mental health environment. Respondents also claimed a mentally healthy workplace was the second most important factor in their decision to accept a new job.

The impact of physical activity to the performance and productivity of employees has been well documented. A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found 96% of working Australians had a least one chronic disease risk factor, while 75% of Australian workers had multiple risk factors. Chronic diseases are preventable through healthy lifestyle choices such as diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep. The economic cost of physical inactivity in terms of lost productivity is estimated at $9.3 billion a year. The bottom line is, if you’re not investing in workplace health and wellbeing programs, you are losing money.

With 60% of waking hours spent at work, workplaces offer the prime location to educate employees about mental and physical health and wellness and provide preventative programs.

Here Sally Kirkright outlines the top five reasons to invest in a mentally and physically healthy workplace;

1. Improved productivity

Healthy workers rate their work performance much higher than unhealthy workers and have much fewer short-term absences than their unhealthy counterparts. An Australian study has found that the healthiest workers are almost three times more effective than the least healthy, with the healthiest employees working approximately 143 effective hours per month compared to just 49 effective hours from the least healthy.

2. Good for business

Workplace health promotion interventions that are comprehensive, well-designed and successfully implemented will have a positive return-on-investment. It will help reduce the costs associated with absenteeism and a high staff turnover and help create a work-life effectiveness for employees. Workplace health issues impose costs on employers such as worker’s compensation claims, medical costs and absenteeism.

3. It’s the law

Employers have legal obligations in relation to the management of health and safety in the workplace. WHS legislation requires employers to ensure the workplace is safe and healthy for all

workers and does not cause ill health or aggravate existing conditions. It is important to remember, this legislation refers to both mental and physical health.

 4. Workers are demanding it

A recent National Workplace Health Index found that health initiatives at work are important to employees with close to 80% of respondents stating they would rather work for an organisation that provides healthy living programs. 83.5% of respondents also claimed their overall health and wellbeing could be improved.

 5. Financial gain

Effective workplace initiatives focusing on mental health have been shown to have a positive impact on business with every $1 invested returning $2.30 to the economy through decreased absenteeism and presenteeism. The Health and Productivity Institute of Australia also found that workplace health programs result in a 25% decrease in absenteeism and a 41% decrease in workers compensation costs.


The link between physical and mental health

More and more organisations are looking at the link between employee health and productivity and adopting workplace programs that support healthy diet, regular exercise, social connectedness and healthy lifestyles. Mental and physical health is fundamentally linked. Those who eat well and exercise are generally healthier and probably going to have less time off work. They also have more energy to contribute while at work. Taking a holistic approach to the care of employees and considering both physical and mental health together, can make a big difference to their overall well-being, quality of life, job satisfaction and productivity.

Corporate Bodies International (CBI) has just released the ‘Employee Health – a snapshot of Australia’s working bodies’ industry report which looked at 12,500 employee health assessments across a spectrum of businesses. The report found that 80% of Australian workers perform inadequate physical activity with 64% of workers were found to be overweight or obese.

Leanne Scanes, Managing Director, CBI explains, “This extensive data set provides valuable insight into the current health risk of Australian workers. Despite the well-established benefits of regular exercise, the majority of employees assessed did not meet the minimum recommendations. Physical health programs are vital to ensure a healthy, productive workforce and business owners and leaders play a critical role in making this happen.”

Scanes believes that a healthy diet and exercise can also help anxiety and other mental health issues from arising in the first place. “A recent US study found that regular exercisers were at a 25% reduced risk of depression and anxiety disorders over a five year period. To create a healthy workplace, business owners need to consider both mental and physical health and if necessary, introduce programs to benefit workers.”

Workplace health and wellness programs need to be part of the overall company strategy for a health workplace. Engagement, motivation, support and strategy are the keys to a successful workplace program.

Here are some tips to ensure your workplace has a holistic approach to workplace wellbeing and takes into account both the mental and physical factors when considering employees welfare;

 1. Educate workers

A high level of awareness of both physical and mental health is essential and needs to be promoted from the top down. Employees need to be made aware of the benefits of being mentally and physically healthy and advised of simple ways in which they can achieve this.

2. Respectful workplace culture

A respectful workplace culture is one which is healthy, safe, supportive and values diversity. It is a place where employees feel valued and conflict is addressed in a positive way. People need to feel comfortable in their work environment and feel part of a community that respects and supports them.

 3. Take part in health events

There are numerous national and international health related events designed to help create awareness and promote wellbeing in the workplace. Mental Health Awareness Month in October is one of the largest but there is also R U Ok? Day, Walk to Work Day, Go Home On Time Day, Men’s Health Week and many others. Taking part in these events will help raise awareness and reduce the stigma within your organisation.

 4. Provide preventative health services

Providing employees with regular health checks, mental health awareness training, resilience building training and promoting regular exercise to employees, will help build a healthy workforce.

 5. Introduce a wellbeing program

With the benefits of exercise well documented and numerous studies showing the advantages to employers, a wellbeing program will go a long way to ensuring your employees are fit, healthy and productive.

Mental Health Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to review your organisations health and wellness strategies and consider introducing a program that will help both employees and the organisation. If you are not investing in the mental and physical health of your employees, it is costing your business money.'

Sally is CEO of an Australian provider of an employee assistance program including organisational consulting, training and workplace wellbeing services.

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