How to Increase Participation in Workplace Health and Wellbeing Initiatives


May 10, 2018

Business people in an elevator

Photo by Peter Muller/GettyImages

This commentary originally appeared in Reward & Employee Benefits Association Annual Report on March 31, 2018.

Many employers are actively looking at ways to improve the health and wellbeing offer in their workplaces. In fact, most UK employers are expanding their offers to their employees.

Organisations understand that investing in health and wellbeing may have a range of positive business outcomes, such as reducing absenteeism (not being at work) and presenteeism (being at work but not being fully productive), improving the long-term health of staff and potentially leading to better business results. However, some key challenges remain.

Using data from Britain's Healthiest Workplace (BHW), an initiative developed by VitalityHealth that has surveyed close to 400 employers and 90,000 employees across the UK over the last four years, RAND Europe has seen a significant divergence between what employers believe is happening in the workplace and what their employees perceive to be happening in the workplace.

Most employers surveyed offer a range of health and wellbeing initiatives, with only less than 5 per cent of organisations offering nothing to their employees. However, access to these initiatives can be an issue, while awareness of these interventions among staff is low.

Using 2017 BHW data, on average, only 43 per cent of employees surveyed have access to the health and wellbeing initiatives offered in the workplaces. Where such initiatives are offered by employers, only 18 per cent of employees reported being aware of them. Of those who reported being aware, only 31 per cent participate in them. In this sense, participation and engagement with these initiatives appears to be low.

Low participation matters on a number of levels. At a basic level, it cannot be good business for employers to reach out to staff and not get a response. Perhaps more importantly, we know that participation in health and wellbeing interventions has inherent benefits.

Work by the nonprofit RAND Corporation in the U.S. shows that participation results in lower health risks, such as smoking and obesity. Using the BHW data in the UK, we see that those participating year on year in health and wellbeing interventions report a significant improvement in cardiovascular health, lower levels of perceived bullying and an increase in physical activity over that period compared to those not participating.

What drives participation in a workplace characterised by complex interactions?

Using data collected from analysis, we can point to two factors. Firstly, workplaces that train line managers in health wellbeing report higher participation in health and wellbeing interventions. Secondly, employers that report on the health and wellbeing of staff internally and externally show higher participation among employees. This indicates that culture change in the workplace can be driven by making health and wellbeing a business priority, reporting on it, discussing it at board level and empowering managers.

Ultimately, increasing employee participation in workplace health and wellbeing requires organisations to set strategies that address the main health risks, engage effectively with staff, and have buy-in and support for those at the top.

Christian van Stolk is vice president of RAND Europe and leads on employment and social policy research. He sits on a number of expert groups for the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions looking at employee health and wellbeing. He is also responsible for RAND Europe's work on Britain's Healthiest Workplace.