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HR health and wellbeing special 6/6: better physical and mental health delivers benefits for both the employee and employer

Workplace health and wellbeing do not remain constant. The focus of attention for organisations shifts and changes as technology, working practices and societal expectations and norms develop.

Musculo-skeletal problems (especially back pain and strain injuries) have been important for decades and seem likely to continue to cause problems for working people.

Work-related stress and mental health represent other major health and wellbeing issues and, for the first time, absences from work due to work-related stress have overtaken musculoskeletal problems to become the top cause of long-term absence, even for manual workers. As the items covered in this supplement demonstrate, the framework for employers contains a mix of psychological and physical health issues. Much research evidence emphasises the close connection between mental and physical health, with a growing body of research demonstrating correlations between psychological well- being and health outcomes, ranging from the common cold through to early death.

Evidence on the business case for health and wellbeing is powerful and shows how better physical and mental health delivers benefits for both the employee and employer. Specific gains for employers include the fairly obvious outcome of lower levels of sickness absence, but there is also evidence of improved customer/user satisfaction, performance and productivity and all-round business performance. The various government-led initiatives, such as Steve Boorman's report on the wellbeing of staff in the NHS and David Macleod and Nita Clarke's taskforce on employee engagement, all provide impressive evidence on the gains that employees who are engaged and well deliver for themselves and their organisations.

Realising these benefits is not always straightforward. For example, introducing flexible working arrangements can create tensions and difficulties when it is not made available to all. Well-intentioned initiatives can have unintended effects and create more problems than they solve. A piecemeal approach is not as effective as a more holistic solution.

The latter requires organisations to bring together health and wellbeing at a strategic level - or a full range of business benefits may not be realised and competitive advantage lost.

The danger with a piecemeal approach is that initiatives will not be joined up properly nor potential benefits be realised. Building a resilient workforce through initiatives to prevent or tackle health problems early (such as better workstations or fast treatment for musculo-skeletal pains) training and development (eg resilience training programmes) and better working practices (eg flexible working) can deliver wide-ranging gains. If these initiatives are tackled through a series of separate initiatives, delivered by different functions, such as occupational health, learning and development or HR, synergies and wider gains may be missed.

Introducing such initiatives may improve the reputation of the organisation as a place to work - and provide capacity to use this to attract better talent. But if talent management is not on the agenda, potential benefits may never be realised.

A strategic approach to wellbeing starts with the overall goals of the organisation and an examination of the extent to which existing and proposed wellbeing initiatives can support the goals.

An important aspect of a strategic approach involves establishing clear indicators and measurement metrics that can be used to identify the goals of a wellbeing programme and to monitor progress. Although there is more interest than ever in the benefits of improved wellbeing, it is essential to be able to clarify and quantify the gains to be made.

Ivan Robertson (pictured) is professor of organisational psychology at Leeds University Business School and a founding director of wellbeing consultancy Robertson Cooper