Management Magazine
Special Report

Workplace well-being has economic benefits

Create a wellness strategy for your team


I do not consider myself a particularly health conscious person. I have never had a gym membership. I do not train for gruelling marathons like some of my colleagues. I like a beer and my couch. I do however like healthy foods such as salads and vegetables probably because I once read that a colourful plate is a sign of many different vitamins and minerals, hence healthy! And I do like walking a lot. I am however lucky that I seldom get sick. The last sick day I took at work was more than three years ago when as a 43-year old adult I unexpectedly suffered from the mumps, a viral infection that usually affects children.

However, I am amazed at how many people are sick regularly. The loss of productivity to organisations can be staggering – a factor many don’t recognise at first. But it is not just the employees staying at home that could impact productivity but also those that are sick and still come to work – a factor dubbed “Presenteeism”.

Sick at work

A study done by VitalityHealth, a UK-based private medical insurance company, partnering with Mercer, RAND Europe and The University of Cambridge, revealed some scary statistics. Its “Britain’s’ Healthiest Workplace” survey found that though average employee sick days dropped from 3.3 to 2.7 days between 2016 and 2017 the amount of days of “presenteeism” increased from 24.2 to 27.7 days in the same period. The researchers believe that translating the combined impact of illness related absenteeism and “presenteeism” into monetary terms could account to an impact of £77.5 billion (about KSh.8.9 Trillion) a year on the British economy.

Studies across the world come to the same conclusion. According to reports published in April 2019, Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA) estimates that employee absenteeism costs the South African economy up to R16 billion a year while the Human Capital Review believes it’s even higher at R19 billion a year. This amounts to an average of about 15 per cent of employees being absent daily. Taking “presenteeism” into account, this could rise to as much as R48 billion! Hence businesses are wasting as much as 17 per cent of their annual payroll just on absenteeism alone.

But it is obviously not just diseases such as the common cold and flu which resorts in absenteeism but also issues such as mental health and wellness – an issue easily overlooked. The US-based Centre of Disease Control and Prevention believes that “Depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20 per cent of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35 per cent of the time.”

It is hence clear that the health and wellness of employees should be an absolute critical focus for employers – a fact many unfortunately still ignore. Here are a few practical examples of how organisations can make a big difference by just making some small changes:

Promoting healthy and clean habits

Most countries have legislation in place to guide health and safety in the workplace. In Kenya this is governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 2007. And while most legislation deals with obvious hazards which could endanger employees such as heavy machinery and the like, some obvious steps could easily get lost in the legal jargon. 

The American Cleaning Institute’s Global Hand Washing initiative cites research which proved that just proper hand washing hygiene could reduce gastrointestinal illness and related absences by more than 50 per cent and overall a 20 per cent less absence due to illness. Put up a few posters to remind employees to wash their hands – it is the small things that make a big impact.

Counselling for better mental health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 264 million people globally suffer from depression with many showing signs of anxiety as well. Commonly reported challenges include workplace bullying and harassment while many are also stressed around issues such as work security.

A WHO-led study estimates that the global economy could be affected by as much as USD1 trillion annually in lost productivity due to anxiety and depression. It is worthwhile to use existing HR structures or train some employees to provide guidance and counselling to fellow team members. Sometimes people just need a willing ear to blow off some steam.

Encourage exercise

Exercise in the office isn’t a new idea. But it’s such a clear win-win – in terms of health, morale and productivity. And while many employees would balk at the idea of a compulsory exercise regime it does pay to encourage some fun activities for the group. Our organisation, Ornico, made provision for a small gymnasium once we moved to our new premises a while back. I see employees return from workouts refreshed and better focused on their jobs. Time lost on exercise is made back and more in terms of improved productivity.

What is clear is that both employees and organisations can only win once you focus on health – something we mostly take for granted.

Francois van Dyk, @sbalie, heads up Operations at Ornico, the Brand Intelligence research company. He worked in public relations before entering the world of media research.

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