Employees are undoubtedly one of the biggest assets to any organisation. It is important to ensure the physical and mental well-being of employees to increase workplace satisfaction, retain talent and reduce employee-related costs.

Although employee wellness has been in the minds of employers from as early as the 1920s, the modern corporate wellness programmes only began in the 1960s with exercise programmes, health risk assessments and stress management. The first wellness and safety programme in South Africa was introduced in the 1980s by the Chamber of Mines of South Africa.

Today, employee wellness is about more than just the physical well-being of an employee, but also their mental health and comfort. Various studies have found that wellness programmes can increase job satisfaction and productivity, while reducing absenteeism and the financial burden on companies.

Christina Conradie and her fellow researchers found a direct link between wellness programmes and a company’s profits in their 2016 study entitled: Corporate health and wellness and the financial bottom line.

“The study provides the first evidence from employers in South Africa that workforce health and wellness programmes are positively associated with companies’ financial bottom lines,” the study reads.

It is estimated that South Africa loses around R55 billion to sick leave each year. While not every industry is capable of providing bean bags and sleeping pods, like Google, for example, there are areas in which every industry can improve.

Ergonomics behind the desk

One of the biggest factors in productivity is a comfortable workplace. This will mean different things for different industries, but, essentially, it is all about reducing fatigue. Around 80 percent of employees become uncomfortable as the day progresses, and between 60 and 90 percent experience work-related lower-back disorders.

For offices, this could mean implementing comfortable chairs or desks that allow employees to stand or sit. For the manufacturing industry it might mean anti-fatigue mats, while the construction and mining industry might want to avoid placing employees in cramped spaces and ensure they take frequent breaks.

Ergonomics provide ways in which the environment can be optimised to ensure that an employee is sitting or standing comfortably and able to perform at their best. Ergonomists conduct basic risk assessments to highlight potential hazards and provide countermeasures to improve the workspace.

In addition to professional assessments, companies should also educate employees on the basic principles of ergonomics to encourage a culture of self-reliance in which employees can take the initiative to adapt their workplace for optimum comfort. It could be something as simple as moving the keyboard or lifting the computer monitor to eye level to avoid slouching.

Ergonomics is deeply tied in with the physical well-being of the employee. Uncomfortable spaces could cause physical harm, such as lower-back pain. If an employee is seated for most of the day, it can increase their risk of weight gain and associated diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Fitness for fiscal growth

Employers can assist employees to care for their physical health by providing important health services at the office, such as health screenings and seasonal flu shots. Companies can also provide healthy food at the canteen and encourage employees to take frequent breaks to stretch.

The physical health of employees can also be protected by ensuring good office hygiene. Bacteria and viruses can quickly spread in an office environment. Cleaner offices result in a decrease in sick days. Start by providing employees with the basics such as hand sanitiser stations and regular quality cleaning services at the office.

Discourage employees from eating meals at their desk as the keyboard is often the dirtiest tool in the office. Employers can also regularly service or clean the air-conditioning system and implement air-purification systems to improve the air quality in the workplace.

Mentally prepared for success

Mental health among employees is just as important as physical health. Stress plays a big role in most work environments and can be caused by a variety of factors such as loud noises, conflict, or excessive workloads or hours.

Causes of conflict can include role interference, role ambiguity, conflicting expectations and forced role engagement during which employees are required to take on more work, or work longer hours.

Employers should ensure that positions and responsibilities are clearly defined, set goals and provide employees with support to achieve them. Mentorship programmes provide a good way of reducing stress and conflict as employees form a close relationship with their supervisor and feel comfortable to discuss concerns.

Identifying the warning signs

Organisations should be able to identify when an employee’s well-being is suffering. They might seem constantly tired, make more mistakes or cause conflict. Companies can support the employee by providing a safe environment to discuss their challenges and potentially ease their stress.

Substance abuse can also be an indication that an employee is stressed or unwell. Companies should educate employees on the risks of substance abuse and have clear policies in place.

Frequent alcohol and drug testing is a good way of discouraging employees from coming to work under the influence and placing themselves and their peers at risk. If an employee has an addiction, the company can assist the employee to receive professional help.

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