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Workplace Wellbeing: The Impact Of Poor Physical Health At Work

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The nineteenth annual Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey by the CIPD, in partnership with SimplyHealth, surveyed over a thousand organisations across the UK. 61% of respondents agree that employee wellbeing is on the agenda of senior leaders, up from 55% in 2018. Today, we’re going over the importance of physical wellbeing and the facts about poor health at work.

Workplace wellbeing is a very broad concept. It can mean a lot of different things, and can be affected by a wide variety of factors from in and outside of the workplace. Following up on our recent piece about why organisations should care about the wellbeing of their staff, we’ll be discussing four different areas of employee wellbeing over the next few weeks: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, financial wellbeing and social wellbeing.

How common is poor health at work?

Physical wellbeing is probably the best understood area of workplace wellbeing in general. When someone takes an unplanned absence from work, your first assumption (bar skiving) might be that they are probably sick or injured. Some professions come with a higher degree of physical risk. HSE found that of the 147 workplace deaths reported from 2018 to 2019, the most deaths (32) were attributed to agriculture, forestry and fishing combined. This was closely followed by construction at 30. But measures to ensure physical wellbeing can even be found in office environments in the form of things like ergonomically designed equipment to reduce risk of RSI.

Fancy chairs and keyboards might not seem that important, but according to government statistics, 6.9 million working days were lost to musculoskeletal disorders in 2018/19, which accounted for 37% of work-related illnesses. The highest rate of musculoskeletal disorders was found in the construction industry, with over 2,000 out of every 100,000 workers. The CIPD’s survey found that this type of disorder was in the top three causes of long-term absence, along with mental health issues and stress.

Poor health at work often starts with injuries

However, another growing issue in the UK workforce related to physical wellbeing is that of “presenteeism,” the practice of working while ill or working more hours than required. According to the CIPD’s findings, four fifths of respondents said they had witnessed it in the previous twelve months, and a quarter of those said they believed it had increased in that time. Almost none believed it to have decreased. Only a third of organisations where presenteeism was witnessed were taking steps to discourage it despite the negative impact of poor health at work.

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Why physical wellbeing is important

Presenteeism poses a real threat to workplace health, in that if someone continues working while they’re sick, they will inevitably take longer to recover. And if they’re contagious, having them come into the office is a sure-fire way to infect the rest of your staff. A US study found that millennials are the most likely age group to work while sick, with 39% of employees aged 25 to 40 reported coming to work ill whenever they felt symptoms. Of the overall sample, 9 out of 10 reported working while ill at least once, with a third never taking sick days. When asked about their reasons, the most popular one given was having too much work, followed by not wanting to use up an allotted sick day.

Similarly, there is also the issue of “leaveism,” the practice of using allotted holiday time to recover from illness or deal with workloads. Almost two thirds of the CIPD’s respondents said they had witnessed this at work, with half observing colleagues working out of contracted hours, while more than a third had seen coworkers use allocated time off while unwell. Only around a quarter of organisations where leaveism was a problem had taken steps to discourage it in the twelve months leading up to the study’s publication. Leavism puts physical and mental wellbeing at risk, as staff the proper time away to recuperate effectively.

Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

The CIPD has stressed the importance of a holistic approach to workplace wellbeing. While physical wellbeing might be the most well understood, it’s important to understand the extent to which different kinds of workplace wellbeing can overlap and influence each other. Prolonged periods of stress can exacerbate pre-existing conditions, and will reduce the body’s ability to fight off infection. Poor financial wellbeing can limit someone’s ability to take care of themselves, inviting poor physical health. One in fifty households in the UK used a food bank from 2018 to 2019, for example. There is a large body of evidence suggesting food banks do not meet the dietary or accessibility needs of those using them.

But it can be difficult to make allowances for poor physical health without proper communication. Digital platforms can enable businesses to manage poor health at work more effectively. Our weekly check-in feature is the perfect tool to make sure your employees have everything they need to work healthily and effectively.

Flexible working arrangements, particularly remote working, can be very useful for managing physical workplace wellbeing, be it for contagious illnesses or long-term health conditions by reducing the risk of infection, and taking away the additional stress of daily travel. Weekly10 uses smart goals and OKRs to keep staff in the loop and able to contribute no matter where they are.

If you think your business might benefit from any of our services, then we have a variety of demo options for you to check out!

Interested in learning how Weekly10’s habit-forming employee check-in can help keep wellbeing at the forefront of all you do?

Research Associate