Survival of the fittest: Employee Health as a Strategic Imperative

Any organization with a strong sense of survival needs to focus on the well-being of its employees and consider them as customers for ethical as well as pragmatic reasons

Contributors: Prof. Robert Hansen, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College; Mr Geoff McDonald, Global Vice President Human Resource for Talent, Marketing, Communications, Sustainability & Water, Unilever Corporation; Prof. Elizabeth Teisberg, Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth College

workforce health

The corporate lunchbreak: into the wild

Collated and written by Prof. Edward Yagi. Edited by Tom Gamble

Survival techniques

It is vital for organizations to take a strategic approach to improving employee health in view of long-term stability and benefits. We all live in a world where “people have the power” thanks to the explosion of social media. Opinions and experiences of individuals matter much more than they ever have in the past, and that companies ignore unhappy employees or dissatisfied customers do so at their own peril. In other words, any organization with a strong sense of survival needs to focus on the well-being of its employees and consider them as customers for ethical as well as pragmatic reasons.

It’s not what you spend; it’s the way that you spend it


Unwise spending may lead to tears

The problem in many countries is the focus on spending rather than on outcomes. Healthcare in the U.S., for example, is widely regarded as relatively ineffective, with far more spent on worse outcomes compared with other countries; i.e., the American system gives a low return on investment. Health results are not necessarily a function of spending, but rather of how cleverly the spending is done. People want health, not treatment. The fact that those with a chronic condition miss almost twice as much work as those without a chronic condition leads to the conclusion that more effective prevention, including primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention are required. Healthcare services need to be structured around customers, with more logical organization of acute care to reduce the time needed to consult different practitioners.

Both chronic diseases and good health are contagious. Health is a socially shared issue, so promoting healthy lifestyles at work is vital. However, specific issues vary between enterprises. Poor-health employees incur health costs in addition to other knock-on costs to the enterprise; it is therefore important to work with insurers or governments to establish and share outcome measures that are determined based on local circumstances and the particular environment or condition of the community being evaluated, these must certainly extend to the industry level at least, and possibly even to the individual company level.

It’s all in the mind

employee mental health and well being

That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into

Studies show that in recent years, absenteeism and illness are increasingly related to mental health issues, and mental health issues have long been stigmatized in the corporate world. In 2012, for example, an estimated €92 billion (US$118 billion) was lost in the European economy due to absenteeism linked just to depression and anxiety. In an effort to break this stigma, Unilever created a framework to build leadership, management capability, and corporate-wide understanding of the importance of a healthy mind. In addition to running campaigns, such as bringing in role models to talk about mental illness, senior leaders were encouraged to talk about their own experiences with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness – something that required considerable courage. A by-product of this program was that by discussing mental health illness when or after it occurred, employees would later realize that such dialogue was a sign of strength, rather than weakness. The fact is, being anxious, stressed, or depressed is not a sign of failure. One in four people will experience this issue at some point in their life. Consequently, an atmosphere must be created where people feel comfortable talking about mental health issues in the workplace. Of course, the causes of mental illness are complex and cannot always be attributed to issues in the workplace; nevertheless, employers must play a leading role in developing solutions.

Tune in and switch off

Employee metnal wellbeing

The solution: Zen across functions

Other positive initiatives in combatting mental health issues involve encouraging resourcefulness and resilience in the employees themselves. What can be done upstream to stop people getting sick in the first place, through rest, being able to “switch off” or disassociate from the workplace for a period of time (long or short), and examining how teams are working together is important in tackling the causes of stress and related illnesses. It is interesting to note that research shows that one of the biggest sources of stress is lack of feedback from line managers. Improved communication among and between employees is therefore imperative. Employers should also provide employees with opportunities to learn about mindfulness, meditation, yoga, the importance of recovery during the course of a day, and during a holiday.

To conclude, employee healthcare is strategic: intimately linked to motivation, employee loyalty and results, and directly impacting company reputation and results.


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