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25 October 2014 02:28 (South Africa)
South Africa

Workplace wellness still sadly neglected in SA

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa
wellnes at work place

Discovery this week launched the 2012 edition of the largest survey of workplace wellness in South Africa. In its second year, the Discovery Healthy Company Index, a joint initiative with the University of the Witwatersrand and Ron Goetzel from Emory University in the United States, is set to shed light on the health of corporate South Africa. By KHADIJA PATEL.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton explores our drive to work, our ability to throw ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally into our work. He explores our instinct to immerse ourselves in the world of work. De Botton probes what it is that rouses us from bed each morning, grinding our teeth against congested roads to immerse ourselves in “work”.  De Botton concludes work offers a sustained diversion from the inevitability of our individual doomsday. “Our work will have at least distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble,” he decides, closing with a provocation to think more deeply about what it is that sends us to work each morning.

While the Grim Reaper stalks each of us closely, work allows us the opportunity to push back against the boundaries of our mortality. Suspended between work and the reality of our physical deterioration, work is what De Botton terms a “matchstick protest” against the waves of death. We work to eat, to live and then to work another day. 

“Many people spend most of their waking time at work,” says Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness at Discovery. Speaking at the launch of this year’s edition of the Discovery Healthy Company Index, Nossel said, “Employers need to take responsibility for promoting the health and wellbeing of their employees.” As ongoing economic pressure pushes us to spend yet more time at work the role of the workplace in promoting better health of the population has often been undermined. Nossel points out that poor health in a work force is detrimental to economic growth.  As our Brics partners and indeed other African states dwarf our gradual growth, the effects of workplace wellness on productivity are largely unknown.

“Discovery Health, Discovery Life and Vitality are committed to getting people to improve their health. We have a burden of disease in South Africa and a lot of it can be alleviated by lifestyle changes,” Nossel says.

The survey rates companies in terms of the healthiest workplace, highest motivation to improve health, greatest health knowledge, most physically active, best shape, most smoke-free and the least stressed employees – newsrooms do not fare well in this survey. As the health of corporate South Africa trickles through in blocks of revealing data, researchers from Wits assess the health of the South African workforce – or at least the vaunted corporate members among us. 

The 2011 Healthy Company Index survey included 101 participating companies with a total of 13,578 employees. The results offer a grim account of workplace wellness in South Africa. A substantial 43.4% of employees surveyed were found to have had five or more risk factors outside of the healthy range, 81% of the respondents did not meet recommended physical activity guidelines, similarly, 82% of employees do not eat enough fruit and vegetables every day, 63% of employees are at an unhealthy weight (high body mass index or BMI) and 61% of employees did not have preventive health checks. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression rated among the most common chronic conditions.

Discovery believes participating companies can use the results from the survey to create an environment that encourages healthy behaviour and lifestyles. Globally, organisations have becoming increasingly aware of issues related to employee wellness, with attention to integrating employees’ wellness activities with employers’ responsibilities. Nossel says there is evidence of an increasing number of South African companies now rolling out wellness programmes. “It was rewarding to see companies rolling out wellness initiatives in the workplace and we would like to encourage more companies to enter so their efforts can be recognised. The research is clear that more needs to be done to arrest the rising burden of disease,” he says.

Formal workplace wellness programmes in South Africa only began to emerge in the 1980s. According to WorkWell, a research unit for the economic and management sciences at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, the Chamber of Mines was first to institute a workplace wellness programme after it carried out a feasibility study in the mining industry in 1983. It did not, however, prove particularly popular with South African companies. Despite the role a comprehensive workplace wellness programme could play in the promotion of employee health and wellness as well as in assisting organisations, fewer than half of South Africa’s top 100 organisations had instituted wellness programmes by the early 2000s. Researchers from North-West University point out as well that the potential for wellness programmes to equip employees with the skills to adjust  to rapidly changing contexts has been particularly underutilised. “Considering the significant changes in the South African organisational landscape since the advent of democracy, the shortage of employee wellness programmes in South Africa is alarming because change is a factor that greatly reduces wellness at work,” they say.

The very definition of employee wellness is fraught with misunderstanding. In a study conducted by the NWU there was no consensus among participating organisations, labour unions or service providers on what exactly employee wellness is. “In short, 16 organisations, four service providers and seven labour unions defined employee wellness in 27 different ways.” And while international standards of employees are similarly fraught, the Harvard Business Review defines workplace wellness as “An organised, employer-sponsored programme that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviours that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organisation’s bottom line.”

It is the return on investment of attention to workplace wellness that is particularly significant. According to Karen Milner from Wits University, “Research has shown that the health of employees can have a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. The issue of workplace health and wellness is consequently an important priority for many decisions makers in business.”  Companies that invest time and resources in an employee wellness culture, with a proactive focus can expect a return on the investment. The possible return on investment might include lower absenteeism, healthier employees, fewer accidents and lower staff turnover.

Although some health risk factors,  such as hereditary diseases, cannot be modified, focused education and personal discipline can change others such as smoking, physical inactivity, weight gain and alcohol use, and, by extension, hypertension, high cholesterol, and even mild or periodic depression. DM



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Photo: The Discovery Healthy Company Index will shed light on SA's corporate health. REUTERS.

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa


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