Why your people want to get healthy but can’t

Why your people want to get healthy but can’t

Anyone who has ever attempted to stick to a fitness routine or cut out junk food knows just how hard it is to put an end to bad habits. That’s because bad habits start for a reason, and good intentions alone aren’t enough to deliver significant behaviour change. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the health of people at work is continuing to deteriorate.

According to the latest Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study,1 which Mercer founded six years ago with Vitality Health to better understand the impact of employee health on productivity, UK employers are now losing an average of 35.6 days of productive time per person per year, compared to 30.4 days last year.

This sharp increase means that, on average, 13.63% of work time is lost to health-related absence (1,16%) and presenteeism2 (12.47%), in no small part due to poor lifestyle choices, which most employees don’t even realise are impacting negatively on their ability to perform at work.

This year’s data reveals that two-thirds of people (65%) are not eating healthily, compared to one in two employees (46%) last year. At the same time, more than 44% report problems with the quality of their sleep, and the number of people getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night increased to 37%, compared to 30% last year.

This is hugely detrimental to the ability of people to perform at work, because if we don’t fuel our bodies correctly or give ourselves the respite we need to recover, we become more accident-prone, less creative, more irritable, less collaborative, and much less engaged and effective at what we’re doing.

Why the desire to get healthy isn’t enough

Perhaps the saddest outcome to emerge from the survey is the extent to which the genuine desire of people to get healthy isn’t translating into results. So why is it that when people very much want to have a healthy BMI, eat well and get enough sleep, they can’t make the positive changes necessary to make that happen?

As observed by the University College London (UCL’s) model for behaviour change, the desire to get healthy isn’t enough. Instead, there are three necessary conditions that all need to be in place for genuine behaviour change to take place: capability, motivation and opportunity.

In practice, this means that if employees want to eat healthily but don’t have time to buy or prepare healthy meals, they won’t have the opportunity to eat well. That if they want to improve their mental health but inadvertently continue to do things that undermine this, they won’t be able to boost their emotional wellbeing until they develop that capability. And that if they want to use the gym but are hesitant to go because everyone there is already fit and toned, their motivation to work out will be diminished.

Applying behaviour change to workplace wellbeing

Fortunately, employers that apply the science of behaviour change to their wellbeing programmes can dramatically increase people’s chances of converting good intentions into actions that help them lead healthier lives.

The potential benefits for both employees and employers shouldn’t be underestimated. The healthiest organisations from this year’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey were able to save an average of 11.5 days of unproductive time per person per year compared to a typical workplace. That equates to employing another five people per 100 people already employed.3

With business benefits like this waiting to be realised, smart employers can no longer afford to ignore the impact of health on productivity or the opportunities that behaviour change presents for helping people turn their good intentions to be healthier into actually being healthier.

Wolfgang Seidl
by Wolfgang Seidl

EMEA Health Management Leader, Mercer Marsh Benefits

1 Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey partners include Mercer Marsh Benefits, Vitality Health, University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and the Financial Times. Since 2013, more than 158,000 individuals and nearly 450 unique companies have taken part in the survey. The 2018 data is based on 26,471 employees across 128 organisations.

2 Note: Presenteeism may be defined as being present at work but being limited in some aspects of job performance by a health problem and thus experiencing decreased productivity and below-normal work quality. This is different to absence, which is generally defined as not showing up for work.

3 11.5 days x 100 employees = 1,150 days. Assuming each new person works a five-day week and has 28 days of statutory paid holiday, six bank holidays and two public holidays per year, this generates (5 x 52) – (28 + 8) = 260 – 36 = 224 working days per person. Dividing the 1,150 extra days by this figure results in 5.1 extra employees per 100 existing employees.


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