Time to stop ignoring the evidence: a healthy workforce fosters a healthy bottom line


With winter well and truly kicking in, it’s that time of the year when people get particularly vigilant about their own health. And there’s always that one person in the office who, upon hearing the hint of a sniffle, finds the culprit and demands they go home immediately to protect the well-being of everyone else.

And while that person may be considered a bit of a hard-ass, those who make it through the colder months without having to spend any days tucked up in bed as a stuffy, flu-y mess secretly appreciate their efforts.

Because of course it makes sense to send a sick person home. Someone who’s under the weather is not only going to be unable to perform at their best levels, they’ll also likely bring other people’s productivity levels down as well.

Yet, many workplaces are still failing to realise this is also absolutely the case with people’s mental health and wellbeing.

The financial argument for mental health

A 2013 paper from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine offered resounding arguments in support of the notion that a healthy employee is a better employee – and those arguments factored in mental health as well.

“Workers who suffer from physical or mental health problems are more likely to have higher rates of absenteeism and presenteeism (reduced productivity when they do come to work),” the report read.

“Indirect costs are also impacted, with managers spending more time dealing with workers’ complex health issues and potential staff replacement costs. The costs of workers’ poor health and engagement can multiply if unchecked.”

The paper goes on to discuss that these issues manifest themselves differently in different sized businesses – usually quite profoundly in small businesses, while in larger businesses it’s harder to see, as issues such as a drop-off in an individual’s productivity is easier to be hidden, although the problems are still present.

It’s recommended that these issues are addressed proactively, getting ahead of the issues before they manifest:

“Employers have much to gain from actively engaging with their workers, particularly in relation to organisational factors that impact employees’ health and wellbeing.”

So what kind of organisational factors could be looked at?

Reduce hours to increase health

In February this year, a study from The Australian National University (ANU) found that the international limit of 48 working hours per week for full time employees was an outdated model – no great surprise considering it was set some 80 years ago.

Instead, the ANU researchers reached the conclusion that a healthy working week was averaged at about 39 hours.

“Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly,” lead researcher Dr Huong Dinh said.

Work doesn’t stop when you walk out the door

Plenty of employers are likely none-too-pleased to read about that 39-hour limit. Well, for those particular bosses, it gets worse.

The study found that women should really be limited to 34 hours per week, because they are far more likely to be carrying a heavier load of unpaid work on the domestic front.

“Despite the fact that women on average are as skilled as men, women on average have lower paid jobs and less autonomy than men, and they spend much more time on care and domestic work,” Dr Dinh said.

“Given the extra demands placed on women, it’s impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health.”

To balance this out, the study recommended that if men aren’t really doing their bit at home, a 47-hour limit was a fair limit on their time on the tools.

But far from recommending that the status quo simply be maintained, the researchers were also advocating for a shift in the ‘50s mindset of ‘men are the breadwinners, women are the breadmakers’, by encouraging men to work fewer hours to ensure they’re pulling their weight at home too.

“Australia needs to do more to change attitudes to work and to support men to take time to care without penalty or prejudice,” said co-researcher Professor Lyndall Strazdins.

That particularly spoke to me, as while being a father to my kids is the best part of my day, it’s also an area where I’d be the first to admit I could be pulling more weight – and while being my best at work is always my priority when I walk through the office door, ultimately some things are more important. And what parent wouldn’t agree that the right list of priorities goes: family, daylight, then work?

Happy employees, happy days!

Coming back to the disadvantages of an unhealthy workplace, it’s actually a carrot-and-stick situation, with benefits for healthy workplaces.

According to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “Good mental and physical health impacts wellbeing, which in turn supports productivity, resulting in a competitive advantage for employers.”

The key is, as mentioned above, “actively engaging”.

You wouldn’t allow the sneezing, spluttering person to stay at their desk, doing a subpar job and bringing down the people around them.

Well, it’s time to also start sending home that person who’s still at their desk at 8pm every night, who isn’t seeing their loved ones or getting a break for themselves. They’re potentially doing more harm to themselves, their coworkers and the business than a bout of gastro ripping through the office.

As Professor Strazdins put it, “Australians also need to dispel the widespread belief that people need to work long hours to do a good job.”


About the author

Jason Dooris is the CEO and founder of Sydney-based creative media agency Atomic 212°.