An ill or stressed out employee can cost a company several thousand francs a year. In Switzerland, some companies are waking up to the fact that promoting health in the workplace also helps a firm’s overall productivity.
Every day more than four million people in Switzerland go to work. On average they remain there for eight hours and 20 minutes, which is longer than the time they will spend with their family or in recreation.
Even so, the Swiss do not seem to want longer holidays. In mid-March, two out of three voters rejected an initiative from the unions calling for six weeks’ holidays for all. At the same time, though, more and more of the working population report that they suffer from stress, and cases of burn out are on the rise.
The feeling that all is not well on the job affects not just the individual worker. A study carried out between 2008 and 2011 found that reduction of an employee’s output due to stress can cause companies losses of SFr8,000 ($8,700) per person (see sidebar for details). This does not include the costs associated with absenteeism.
“Swiss companies are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of workplace health. We are on the right track, though many companies still remain to be convinced”, Thomas Mattig, head of Health Promotion Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch.
According to the state agency, health promotion and management have received little attention in small companies with a staff of less than 50. But these companies represent 98 per cent of businesses in Switzerland and almost 50 per cent of workers. To develop models of health promotion that work for smaller companies, a pilot project has been launched in the Lucerne region, which is due to be completed in 2013 (see VitaLab link).
At the European level, Switzerland is a bit behind the times, especially in comparison with the Nordic and German-speaking countries, Mattig said. “In Switzerland we depend mostly on voluntary action. In Germany, however, more state subsidies are made available to companies that promote health. The possibilities here are considerable.”
Spend one franc, make three
One instrument of health promotion on the job is the “Friendly Work Space” label introduced by Health Promotion Switzerland in 2009. This quality label, the only one of its kind, is awarded to companies that approach health promotion as an executive responsibility, making it part of their managerial strategy.
It is not a matter of building a wellness hotel for staff or of changing the structure of the company, explained Dominique Lötscher, also of Health Promotion Switzerland. “It is more a matter of corporate culture than extra costs.”
Only 31 companies have received this certification so far. But thanks to the participation of large companies like Nestlé or Swiss Post, over 100,000 people now benefit from a healthier work environment.
“In our sorting offices and parcel centres, we adjusted the approach to lifting and transporting heavy loads. We have been asking physiotherapists to sit in on information meetings”, said Swiss Post spokesman Mariano Masserini. “In departments where people work in offices, there is more attention to ergonomics.”
“It is to hard quantify the costs of health promotion,” added Masserini.
“In the past few years we have invested millions of francs. It’s worth it in the long-term, seeing as every franc invested in health triples its value.” The Friendly Work Space label, he added, has recognised the efforts they have made so far.
Lötscher noted: “The important thing is that staff be involved in the process, so as to have their wants and needs addressed.”
Less absenteeism, more holidays
The motivation for a business to take the initiative on staff health is twofold, Lötscher said. “In the first instance, it is a way to demonstrate both internally and to the outside world that the health of employees is an important issue for the company. This is a point that could be crucial in situations where it is hard to find qualified workers.”
In the second place, there are economic considerations. Employees who feel physically and psychologically healthy perform better. And generally they turn out to be more innovative. “And not forgetting the decline of absenteeism”, Lötscher added.
Health protection and accident prevention - a reduction of 75 per cent between 2001 and 2010 - have made it possible to reduce workplace absenteeism to a great extent, Rudolf Winzenried of the Kambly biscuit company, reported. “That made it possible to give our staff an extra week of holidays.”
For unions too, the integration of health protection in corporate processes and decisions symbolised by the Friendly Work Space label represents “a win-win strategy”, as Dario Mordasini, a workplace safety specialist with Unia, told swissinfo.ch.
In general, he now finds increasing awareness of the issue of workplace health. “In the past 15 years there has been a lot of progress in accident prevention. On the other hand, little progress has been made as regards physical ailments caused by heavy work or repetitive movements, as well as mental health problems caused by work.”
These are worthwhile initiatives, “but the practical application still lags behind”, according to Suzanne Blanc, of the Travail Suisse umbrella trade union group. “More flexibility and a better work-life balance are needed.”
Switzerland does not yet have in place a “safety culture” which would ensure that worker health is protected as it should be, says Unia’s Mordasini.
For Brigitta Danuser, who heads the Institute for Work and Health at Lausanne University, the problem needs to be tackled at the source. “Companies are concerned about absenteeism, which is starting to get quite costly. But they keep on trying to get employees to compete with one another.”
To change things, she added, there is a need to act on the real causes of stress – “conflicts involving people and the organisation”.
The cost of ill health
Between 2008 and 2011 eight large Swiss companies with a total of over 5,000 staff participated in the SWiNG project. The aim of this initiative launched by Health Promotion Switzerland and the Swiss Insurance Association was to evaluate the impact of health promotion activities on the staff and the companies involved.
SWiNG found that a stressed employee has lower output; this decline means corporate losses that may amount to SFr8,000 per year.
In the companies which participated in the project, a reduction in stress was observed in the case of 25% of workers.
When there is a positive balance between resources in the workplace (eg support from colleagues and encouragement from management) and stressors (conflict, noise, lack of time), staff are up to 10% more productive and rack up fewer absences (up to 2.6 days less per year).
A particularly decisive factor is the quality of interpersonal relations. This means support, respect and encouragement from bosses and colleagues.
Using the framework of SWiNG, it was calculated that the total costs of implementing anti-stress measures amount to SFr755 per person. This is recouped in about four years. The economic benefits (increased performance, less absenteeism) amount on average to SFr195 per year per employee.
The Swiss section of the European Association for Health Promotion (AEPS) awards an annual prize worth SFr25,000 to companies that undertake to improve working conditions.
The 2012 winners were Migros Cooperative, Lucerne, the health-care facility Résidence Bellerive in Cortaillod (Neuchâtel) and the Implenia construction company.
The Migros Cooperative, Lucerne, a large retailer, is to adopt measures to prevent back problems among their staff. Résidence Bellerive for the elderly has adopted a programme of burn out prevention for their staff of 50. Implenia, on the other hand, decided to focus on alcohol consumption on the job. The aim is to provide support through an awareness programme.
By Luigi Jorio, swissinfo.ch
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)