Wellbeing and work: the facts

Increasingly, wellbeing at work is understood to be a business critical issue. Workforces that are healthy and happy contribute to a growing British economy in a virtuous cycle of reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, leading to greater business productivity. The challenges and pressures to business today mean that a strategic focus on wellbeing is more essential than ever. Demographic change, global competition, advances in technology, and changing expectations of the workforce, coupled with reduced public spending, have all placed employers at the forefront of challenges to adult public health in the 21st century. Below, we set out some of the key facts and issues around wellbeing at work facing employers today

Rise of non-communicable disease linked to lifestyle
The facts around adult physical health are startling for both employers and for public health. By 2030, the NHS estimates that 48% of men and 43% of women will be obese. Already, 3.3 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes in the UK (2014), and by 2025 it is estimated this will rise to 5 million. Dementia, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke are the biggest cause of preventable deaths in the UK. 

Helping people to be happy, healthy and to fulfil their potential, both in and out of work, is a fundamental responsibility for all employers. 

- Patrick Watt,
Corporate Director, Bupa UK

Some risk factors are genetic, but others are impacted by factors that can be addressed, including weight, physical activity, diet, smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol1 . There is emerging evidence that sedentary lifestyles, and prolonged sitting can lead to health risks and overall reduced life spans2 . With a significant proportion of adults spending the majority of the typical working week in the workplace, responsible employers must recognise the strong link between working practices and public health outcomes.

Mental health is now the largest cause of absence at work
Since the 1990s, mental health has been recognised as area of concern for workplace wellbeing. Mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, with more than 15 million absence days attributed to stress, anxiety and depression in 2013,3and also accounts for a significant percentage of presenteeism. The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism from mental ill health alone costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum, while absenteeism costs £8.4 billion.4 

According to a 2015 poll, anti-depressant prescriptions in Britain have doubled in the past 10 years5.  Suicide rates for men have increased since the recession and is now the leading cause of death for men in England and Wales under 456. 

We are working with business to reduce stigma around mental health and tackling poor mental health.   

UK productivity and engagement figures remain low
Compared with other Western economies, the UK has not fared well with regard to employee engagement and productivity. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), during 2015, UK workforces were 31% less productive than those of the US and 17% less productive than the rest of the G7 countries, and in 2012 only two in five employees were working at peak performance7. This is despite employees in the UK working similar hours to these regions. Failure to unlock discretionary effort in employees costs UK business £6 billion.

This UK productivity puzzle has many components, but engagement and wellbeing are a significant factor. To put this in context, the UK ranked 18 out of 20 countries on employee engagement scores8 .  The link between wellbeing and engagement has been well established by leading academics in this area,9 with Engage for Success finding that employees with high wellbeing were more attached to their organisations. Engagement and productivity are further hampered when long term illness leads to increased pressures on other staff. Long term sickness absence is estimated to cost the private sector, £4.17 billion.10 This data makes the business case for investing in a proactive approach to wellbeing clear.

Workplace pressures have been rising
The rise of mobile technology, global competitiveness, and financial pressures from the recent recession have all conspired to make employers and employees feel as though they are operating in an increasingly pressurised environment.11  Remote working allows employees to be on call regardless of their location, with many working during annual leave and whilst on holiday.12  For all employers, the perception that employees need to achieve more with less resource can lead to decreased wellbeing. These conditions can lead to workplace related stress, anxiety and depression, conditions which have been particularly acute in public services in recent years.13 To be an employer of choice, organisations will need to consider the impact of their workplace culture on employee wellbeing, and how this is affecting absenteeism, presenteeism and retention.

Employee expectations and needs are changing. 
UK employee expectations around work are changing. Millennials cite access to training and development and flexible working opportunities as preferable to financial benefits.14 Business in the Community’s gender equality campaign found that both men and women in the age group 28-40 seek to work in organisations that enable them to be productive and engaged, by revisiting job-design, better use of technology, whilst removing the stigma attached to flexible working.15  As life spans increase – the first person who will live to 150 has already been born – and retirement age is pushed back, many workers need and want to work longer. However, the workplace is not yet adapted to manage an inter-generational workforce or fully tap into the skills of older workers, particularly those who may find themselves unemployed and seeking to re-enter the workplace.16 
The desire and need to work longer, but more flexibly throughout their life stages, relates strongly to employee wellbeing outcomes.

Respond to demographic changes 
Employers have every incentive to respond to the changing demographics of the workforce, so that they create happy, engaged and inclusive cultures. In the past 40 years, the median age of the UK population has increased by nearly 6 years – to 4017, and many workers are continuing to work as they age, creating a multigenerational workforce. An older workforce will by its very nature require more adaptations for health conditions and disabilities.  Each life stage brings challenges for employees, with parenting and caring responsibilities also feeding into the need to create flexible, agile and supportive workforces. 

The ethnic make-up of the workforce in the UK is also shifting - currently one in eight of the working age population and one in four primary school children is from an ethnic minority background, yet ethnic minorities are not fully represented in work.18 Despite this, ethnic minority employees have greater ambition to progress than their white colleagues – clearly a huge potential of talent for employers to harness.19  

A case for employer action 
The need for employers to invest in health (both physical and mental) and wellbeing in a strategic and proactive way is clear.  A healthy, engaged and resilient workforce is more productive and profitable in terms of efficiency, customer relations, team working loyalty and retention, and sustainable performance.  Most business leaders know instinctively that a happy, healthy workforce is a productive workforce, yet many still treat employee wellness and engagement as an ‘optional extra’ rather than as an integral part of the way they do business. 

The Business in the Community wellbeing campaign recognises that workplace cultures are unique, and an approach to wellbeing at one organisation may be quite different to that at another. Nevertheless, a similar framework can be applied identify the particular wellbeing issues that are relevant each part of their business. Our Workwell Model is designed to support employers to achieve targeted and overarching improvements to their wellbeing strategy. Find out more: The Workwell Model


[1] NHS Choices

[2] Loughborough & University of Leicester 2012

[3] ONS

[4] Economic and social costs of mental health, Centre for Mental Health, 2009/10

[5] YouGov

[6] ONS 2015

[7] Centre for Economics and Business Research 2013

[8] 2014 ORC International

[9] Robertson Cooper 2011 and Brunetto et al 2012

[10] CEBR 2015

[11] CIPD, Megatrends: are we working harder than ever? 2014

[12] ILM 2015 https://www.i-l-m.com/About-ILM/Information-for-media/Press-releases/Hol...

[13] HSE 2015

[14] Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace in financial services, PwC, 2012

[15] Project 28-40, Business in the Community, April 2014

[16] Missing Millions 2015, Business in the Community, April 2014

[17] ONS 2014

[18] Race at the Top, Business in the Community, June 2014

[19] Race at Work, Business in the Community, November 2015