Top Employers are increasingly seeing the value in promoting fit and healthy lifestyles in an effort to keep employees happy and productive, says Samantha Crous, Regional Director Africa and Benelux at the Top Employers Institute (TEI).
"There is extensive research on the effects that employee ill health has on absenteeism and loss of productivity, which has been calculated to cost economies around the world billions annually in terms of lost revenue," she says.
According to Statistics South Africa, absenteeism costs the SA economy more than R12bn each year.
Occupational Care South Africa (Ocsa) says there is a clear link between employee health, productivity and absenteeism. The organisation provides some interesting insights into absenteeism in the workplace. It states that on average, between 15 and 30% of staff can be absent on any given day with two out of three employees who fail to show up for work not being physically ill.
"More and more companies are realising that they can take steps to improve staff wellbeing, health and happiness," says Crous. According to her, the latest statistics from TEI - that globally certifies excellence in the conditions that employers create for their people - shows that the South African average absenteeism rate for certified Top Employers 2014 is only 4% - well below the Ocsa national average.
Crous believes that many companies fail to take into account how burn-out can affect staff morale and health. This is one of the areas in which Top Employers have been improving year on year. TEI statistics show that assistance offered to employees suffering from burn-out has increased significantly from 36% in 2013 to 46% in 2014. Another interesting increase - over 11% - is in the number of companies offering sports facilities to employees - a clear investment in the physical and mental health of employees.
Unilever, the number one Top Employer in South Africa for 2014, has always been open about its belief in promoting a healthy work/life balance. The company has a number of initiatives in place, like a gym facility called Unifit, which is part of the company's attempt to promote healthy lifestyles amongst employees.
"Unilever supports many initiatives like flexible working hours to make life easier for employees," says Michelle Ramsarghey, Assistant Leadership Development Manager - Africa.
"Unilever also offers obesity and HIV testing and overall employee wellbeing services, free counselling sessions, debt counselling as well as a wellness centre with a physiotherapist, dietician and biokineticist," she says.
Nestlé, South Africa's number two Top Employer, also offers employee health, wellness and lifestyle programmes like weight management plans, disease prevention, daily childcare, flexible benefit schemes and flexible work arrangements.
This is in line with trends seen elsewhere in the world. In the UK, 44% of the companies the TEI has certified have an in-house doctor available for their people. About three quarters of Top Employers have an employment assistance programme (EAP) of some kind, stress management training/support, time management training/support, and employee debt assistance.
Some companies are also training managers on how to identify the early signs of stress or burn-out so that these can be tackled before they become problems. Some cover eye care, mammograms, cholesterol testing, cardiovascular testing, mole checking and cancer awareness. TEI research also shows an increase in participants providing a range of free or subsidised programmes to encourage wellness, such as massages, Zumba classes, yoga, tai chi, or even something simple like having fresh fruit brought into the office daily.
While helping to keep employees healthy may contribute to productivity and overall wellbeing, it also helps make the company more attractive to employees. A recent survey by global healthcare organisation Optum showed that 82% of employees working at companies with health and wellness programmes said these initiatives would encourage them to stay in their jobs longer.
"Definitely good news for any company looking at ways in which they can improve their competitive edge in stressful financial times!" says Crous.