Time for Business to Engage in Public Health

With local councils gaining powers over business rates and public health spending, Dr Steve Boorman at Empactis explores the likely knock-on effects for businesses and how they can best benefit from the change.

As part of the Government’s 2015 spending review, it has pledged to ‘consult on options to fully fund local authorities’ public health spending from their retained business rates receipts’. In other words, as businesses rates are increasingly delivered directly to local councils, those councils will have an obligation to commit a percentage of them to public health.

Councils already have the autonomy to choose the public health issues that matter most to their areas, creating the opportunity for local government and businesses to work together for everyone’s benefit. But despite this, many businesses still have a “not my problem” view of public health. After all, isn’t healthcare the concern of the NHS? So why should I invest more money in keeping staff healthy?

Exposing the false economy

The most obvious answer to that question is that poor employee health costs businesses money. An employee being paid sick leave is costing the business money without bringing any in. Furthermore it takes up management resource in tracking and monitoring sickness and completing admin tasks such as back to work meetings, and increases the potential load on the remaining workforce.

But this somewhat harsh reality is just one piece of a subtler puzzle; employee health is a wider issue than a merely financial one. Healthier employees are happier employees and employee happiness is intrinsically linked to productivity and therefore revenue – but it is also related to important issues like business reputation, ease of recruitment and general morale. David Macleod in his review of high performing businesses concluded that employee health and wellbeing was inextricably linked to the engagement that underpins competitive success.

It’s intriguing that in most other aspects of business operations, maintenance and prevention are seen as expected and necessary investments, infinitely preferable to waiting for a problem to occur. Machinery, IT, vehicles, the office environment – businesses actively maintain and look after all these things, rather than waiting until they are unable to do their jobs. “Prevention is better than cure” is a well-accepted maxim.

Yet employee health has historically not been viewed in the same way. Businesses have tended to wait until the ‘phoning in sick’ moment and then simply tried to minimise disruption, rather than considering how they could avoid such disruption in the first place. But as the 2010 Marmot Review concluded remaining in work and good health are intrinsically linked, underlining that if employers want staff to work longer ‘it is essential to take action to raise the general level of health’.

Taking action on public health

So how can businesses positively affect both public health and that of their employees? The first step for businesses is to change their mind-set and approach to employee health and the opportunity to link with public health funds in local government to provide the perfect foundation for a shift in attitudes. The changes in public health funding provide an opportunity for businesses to take on new responsibilities, and work more closely with councils to make tangible improvements to employee health. By viewing employee health in the same light as IT maintenance or vehicle servicing, rather than an inconvenient cost, businesses stand to save money, and see a return on investment in the short-to-medium term.

In addition to this there are a number of tactics, which could make a significant and positive difference to employee absence and health.

Make the workplace a forum for health

The workplace is the ideal arena in which to communicate key messages about health and wellbeing, particularly for men, who are less likely to attend GP surgeries or opportunistically get health messages than women. In Kent, for example, where a key public health priority is mental health, the local authority has used health promotion specialists to travel around local businesses, teaching employees about how to take better care of their mental health, and what support services are available to them. By working closely with local authorities, businesses can help their employees learn about how to better manage their health, both in terms of their own lifestyles and the services and support available in their local area.

Network and share resources

Such communication should not, however, be limited to sticking up a few posters. Active, practical engagement is crucial for such communication to be effective – and this is where businesses may have a key advantage over public sector organisations. By capitalising on existing business networks, meetings and events, resources can be pooled to best engage employees on health and wellbeing. One business may be able to offer a workshop or training session, for example. Another may be able to design and build an online health resource. And of course, food and drink businesses will be able to assist with healthy meals in the workplace, whilst local gyms and sports facilities have an obvious role to play.

Utilise technology to affect change

Having clear, concise information about employees’ absences due to illness and any conversations they have raised about stress or other health issues is vital. With a host of solutions available to both pro-actively and reactively monitor and manage employee health, businesses can make informed decisions and offer intelligent support to their staff. This will help both reduce the number of absences and the length of absences, reducing the overhead associated with staff illness.

Turning Public Health into a Return on Investment

All of this will of course come at a cost but the current, unmanaged situation ultimately costs more. The government estimates that over 130 million working days are lost to sickness every year, with employers facing a bill of around £9 billion. Meanwhile ill employees are missing out on £4 billion in lost earnings.

As a result it is clear to see that spending time and money on improving staff health and wellbeing offers businesses the opportunity to see a tangible return on investment – if they capitalise on their local authorities’ autonomy and public health funding. A fit and healthy workforce is, after all, good for everyone – employer, employees and indeed, the wider economy.