Phil Austin: Could improving employee wellbeing solve the UK’s productivity puzzle?

Brexit continues to dominate the news agenda and fuel business uncertainty. That uncertainty also overshadows the UK’s puzzling productivity problem, which has troubled economists and business leaders for the best part of a decade. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), UK employees are more than 16 per cent less productive than other G7 nations, despite working longer hours than any other EU country.

It has long been acknowledged that stress and productivity are linked. Stressed out employees are often seen to be less engaged, motivated and consequently less productive at work. Added to this, work-related stress, anxiety or depression is estimated to account for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in the UK, costing the UK economy a staggering £37 billion each year.

Our recent 360 Well-being Survey corroborates these worrying stats. With as many as eight in 10 people suffering from work-related stress, the UK is in the midst of a stress epidemic. Stress triggers vary by demographic and gender and whilst there is no magic wand that can resolve workplace stress overnight, there are ways that businesses can help tackle key triggers within the workplace.

The state of stressed-out Britain

Digging into the figures a little further, some demographics stand-out as being more susceptible to suffering from stress and burn-out. Our survey found that pressures in the workplace and at home are leading to working women typically feeling more stressed than men (79 per cent women vs 66 per cent men), with 10 per cent of women finding this stress ‘unmanageable’.

The key triggers were found to be heavy workloads (17 per cent), personal health (13 per cent) and financial concerns (13 per cent), and eight in 10 women (78 per cent) not getting enough sleep.

Another segment of the UK population suffering major pressure is the ‘sandwich’ generation – a generation of people, typically in their late 30s to early 50s, responsible for bringing up their own children and for the care of their ageing parents. Making up more than a quarter of the population in the UK (26 per cent), just under six in 10 report to suffering from stress, with 13 per cent finding it ‘unmanageable’.

Just under two thirds of the sandwich generation (64 per cent) work in an ‘always on’ culture, which negatively impacts on their wellbeing. They are the forgotten generation, and this group’s worries are on the rise while the response rate to their needs has been slow.

Does ‘always-on’ always boost productivity?

Working within an ‘always-on’ culture was a key driver of stress across all demographics in our global study. Out of the 22 countries and 13,000 people we surveyed, 64 per cent of people around the world work in an ‘always on’ culture which has a major impact on stress, and adversely affects both physical and mental wellbeing. Whilst some countries, such as France, have attempted to curb this by introducing legislation to effectively ban out of hours emails, every company has the responsibility and duty of care for its workers to create a culture that helps, not hinders employees.

So, how can businesses support workers to help reduce stress-related illnesses and improve overall productivity?

Despite mental health awareness being at an all-time high in the UK, alarmingly only just over a quarter (28 per cent) of UK employers have a formal wellness programme in place to support employees. Looking more broadly across the globe, our research shows that employers are not addressing wellness concerns sufficiently and often have a one-size-fits-all mindset when it comes to stress management and workplace wellness programmes. There is also a definite trend with senior management lacking commitment to and not perceived to be in full support of workplace wellness.

Creating a well-run wellness programme and implementing it effectively requires a detailed understanding on key stress drivers inside and out of the workplace. As our research shows, each demographic experience stress triggers differently and employers need to be able to formulate and adapt their approach to make it work for everyone.

This will not only improve peoples’ access to proper medical support but significantly boost the health, wellbeing and peace of mind of every employee. At Cigna, for example, customers can self-refer for support relating to any type of mental health concern. They simply call the team and, where appropriate, are fast-tracked to treatment. This early intervention can prevent emotional wellbeing issues from getting worse, reduce the cost of treatment and help them return to work quickly.

Create a caring culture

Simply having a conversation about what’s going on in people’s lives can ease the burden of stress and is often the best and easiest step to tackling the problem. Employees can make a real difference in supporting their colleagues by knowing and recognising the early warning signs of a mental health issue. Some signs and symptoms to look out for in the workplace include moodiness, fatigue, crying and reduced work performance. Where possible, employees should tell HR teams if they suspect someone is suffering from stress and/or encourage their workmate to get help. It would also be helpful to ensure they have information at hand such as helpline numbers and web links.

We live in a technology-driven world, and it’s no different in the private healthcare sector, where digital technologies are transforming and re-shaping the future of care, diagnosis and access. Platforms and apps such as Cigna Virtual Health have extended the range of health and wellbeing tools to include services such as CBT to help people better manage stress and build life skills. Digital capabilities are continually evolving and increasingly play a crucial role in any best-in-class, modern health and wellbeing programme to help identify and manage workplace stress.

The benefit of implementing a wellness programme extends far beyond looking after your most important asset – your team. Your company will be more attractive to top talent, boost employee retention, and crucially, improve morale. This will not only create a competitive edge, but also set your business up to create a more nurturing and caring culture to the benefit of everyone.

Ultimately, any business in the UK that hasn’t set up a wellbeing programme will be far more likely to experience higher rates of stress-related sickness and decreased staff morale. With the obvious knock-on consequences to motivation, engagement and productivity, it’s imperative that businesses do all they can to support their workers and to help them thrive and be as productive as possible. If they do that, just maybe we can all play a part in piecing together a plan to solve Britain’s productivity puzzle.





Phil Austin is international markets global head of strategy and distribution for Cigna International.

Phil joined Cigna in 2002 as partnership director for the UK Healthcare Benefits business. He has held a number of leadership roles within the business including Health, Life and Accident (HLA) European sales and marketing director, Interim CEO for HLA Europe, head of global individual health as well as managing director for Cigna’s domestic health businesses in the UK and Spain.