Executive Health: Investing in health

Last month the Southern Cross Healthcare Group of businesses celebrated its 50th birthday. Looking back to our beginnings has been an enlightening exercise.
Prior to 1961, health was pretty much something you took care of in your own time. I wonder if our forefathers would have embraced stress management seminars? In-chair massage? Quite unlikely I’d say.
As recently as 1979, our in-house company newsletter marvelled at how “online computerisation, together with the recent installation of two word processing units and two inkjet printers” had achieved “remarkable economies” in administrative efficiency.
However, such “remarkable economies” have come at price for New Zealand’s working population. In general, we work longer and move less. In the workplace we now see the emergence of new health issues such as workplace stress and occupational overuse syndrome – things you never spoke about with your boss when working on the railway line.
Earlier this year, survey undertaken by the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) Northern of 402 upper North Island employers found that health and wellness is now part and parcel of business operations.
Nearly 50 percent of all employers surveyed had formal health and wellness programme in place, while 93 percent offered some form of health intervention in the workplace.
This investment in health and wellness has also proven resistant to the economic downturn of the past few years. Fifty-six percent of employers with formal health and wellness programme had implemented it in the last three years – period which has seen belt tightening in just about every other business area.
Perhaps this is not surprising. When workforces are leaner employers realise it’s even more important that employees remain healthy, productive and loyal.
Reducing absenteeism was seen by 60 percent of employers as key reason to have health initiatives. Some of the most common health activities offered were flu vaccinations (offered by 66 percent of employers) and workstation assessments and cleaning (offered by 57 percent) – interventions that help to directly address two obvious causes of absenteeism.
But while recognising the business benefits of health initiatives, the survey showed that today’s employers are equally motivated by more altruistic reasons. Sixty-two percent of employers cited ‘to encourage work-life balance’ as an important reason for having health and wellness programme while 50 percent cited ‘social responsibility’.
So what can we expect for the next 50 years of workplace health? There are already signs that employers are looking to assist employees even further.
An example is The Warehouse, which won the Supreme Award in the 2010 EEO Trust Work & Life Awards for its parenting programmes for staff. 
What we’re witnessing is strong awareness that physical or mental health problems can’t simply be parked at the door when we walk into work. Looking ahead, the move towards flexi-time, remote working and mobile technology mean that work and ‘life’ are likely to become ever more intertwined.
But it’s here that the daily grind can offer solution. Thanks to the generally routine nature of work, the hours spent there, and the peer support available from colleagues, the workplace is also an ideal environment to make healthy habits for lifetime.

Peter Tynan is chief executive of Southern Cross Health Society.

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