Managing employee health and safety must be a top priority 

Employee health and safety is the people risk that poses the greatest threat to businesses.

Occupational safety and health risks have the most potential to disrupt business, according to our 2022 People Risk Report, with 87% of the HR and risk professionals surveyed saying employee health and safety is the biggest threat to business.

Keeping people safe from the spread of infectious disease (communicable health conditions), including future pandemics, is the top safety concern in the workplace. Followed by unmanaged employee health and safety risks, including physical inactivity, poor diet, alcohol use and poor sleep quality. 

The next most important safety and health at work priorities are tackling rising mental health issues, such as stress and burnout. Followed by workforce exhaustion, leading to fatigue and burnout, and work-related injury including accidents, unsafe exposures and security incidents.

Proactively managing these health and workplace safety risks, must now be a top priority. This will not only enhance employee resilience and increase business resilience, but also make employees more productive and engaged, with three quarters of employees who felt well supported during the pandemic saying they felt energized at work. Compared to just 51% of those who only had fair or poor support, according to our Health on Demand survey.

Critical to success is bringing together HR, risk and finance professionals to plan the design, delivery and financing of solutions, including increasing access to the benefits needed to create a culture of employee health and safety to drive positive business outcomes.

Employee health and safety risks

Safety and health at work is now the people risk with the greatest ability to disrupt business, due to the following employee health and safety risks.
  • Communicable health conditions
    Spread of infectious diseases, including future pandemics, impacting business continuity and operational cost escalation and overall individual and organizational performance.
  • Non-communicable health conditions
    Unmanaged chronic illnesses including diabetes, lung disease and cancer impacting business continuity and operational cost escalation and overall individual and organizational performance. 
  • Workforce exhaustion
    Overtiredness stemming from work-life balance issues, change fatigue and too many priorities and distractions leading to errors, employee turnover, reduced productivity and damaged reputation. 
  • Deteriorating mental health
    Workforce mental health issues (e.g., anxiety, stress, depression and addiction) leading to suboptimal well-being, productivity, benefits spend and employment value proposition/brand.
  • Work-related illness or injury
    Accident, unsafe exposure, security incident or aggravation of pre-existing conditions in a work environment (on-site, remote working).

Covering the cost of employee health and safety

Although the risk of further pandemics and communicable diseases remains the biggest threat to business, reducing the cost of non-communicable diseases remains the biggest financial priority, with the overall cost of providing employer-funded healthcare now increasing at more than twice the rate of general inflation.

Metabolic and cardiovascular risk is the number one factor driving up group medical costs, not least as more people became less physically active and more sedentary during the pandemic increasing their risk of developing a non-communicable disease, such as heart disease or cancer.

COVID-19 is the third biggest cause of claims by cost, with many insurers and employers bracing themselves for the impact of long COVID. Many employers are also looking at boosting workplace safety with more diverse and inclusive benefits programs after the pandemic highlighted healthcare inequalities. Critical workers in particular experienced the greatest occupational safety and health risks during the pandemic but were the least able to access support.

Mitigating employee health and safety risks

Difficulties changing personal behaviour is the main barrier to mitigating occupational safety and health risks, for more than two fifths (43%) of employers, making behaviour change a key priority for any health department wanting to mitigate health and safety risks.

There are three necessary conditions that need to be in place: capability, motivation and opportunity.

Source: Why your people want to get healthy but can’t, Mercer, 2019
A graphic showing the symbiotic relationship between capability, both physical and psychological, opportunity, both physical and social and motivation, both automatic and reflective and behaviour.

Applying the science of behaviour change to employee health and safety

Employers can apply the psychology of behaviour change to occupational safety and health, to dramatically reduce health risks. For example, many organizations provide access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providing free counselling and emotional support, yet utilization of these services remains stubbornly low, despite soaring mental health issues.

A behaviour-change model of wellbeing might also include education for managers on creating a workplace culture that supports mental health so that the stigma of talking about mental health is removed and managers are encouraged to signpost employees to support. This would then motivate individuals to use the support in place, to develop the capability to manage their mental health, with practical advice on how to do this, as well as create an opportunity to practice improving their mental health skills to support them.

All of which requires broadening your approach, by not just looking at how to support people after they become sick but also how to keep them healthy.

Three ways to boost employee health and safety

Generate occupational safety and health insights
The more relevant your initiatives are to your workforce the more likely they are to succeed. Take time to understand the health needs and profile of your workforce through employee listening and analysis of available health risk data.
Review existing employee health and safety benefits
Review existing benefits arrangements through a needs gap analysis and benchmark your program against current and emerging people risks. Look at where employee needs are not being met to inform strategies and initiatives to address this.
Make the business case for health and safety in the workplace
Don’t just look at the potential of employee health and safety benefits for reducing sickness absence. Also calculate how this will impact on staff replacement costs, productivity, customer satisfaction and business resilience to make the business case.
Our people risk research reveals the top people risks that need to be considered as part of a people risk management strategy. Find out how managing people risk across five key pillars can build business and human resilience.
Amy Laverock

Global Advice & Solution Leader

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