The messages from the 5th Annual Wellbeing Conference held at the end of March in Madrid were that employee health risks remain, more have been identified, and our aging population poses new challenges for employers. Making the business case for reducing these risks through wellbeing intervention has previously proven difficult; but Coors Brewers and Pfizer both presented persuasive evidence.
Coors Brewers estimated the cost impact of employee health issues to be up to GBP 3 million per annum. After introducing case management teams to coordinate the many absenteeism and health programmes already in place at the company, the reward so far has been around GBP 2 million per annum, at a cost of less than 10% of the savings.

Pfizer noted that financial performance increasingly comes from returns on people, not on capital, and that wealth creation is driven by employees. So people initiatives deserve to be measured more precisely by strategically-minded executives. When Pfizer Denmark used the Employee Wellbeing Assessment Tool, the results showed high scores for poor presenteeism*, with headaches the biggest cause of this. After introducing a low-cost headache programme, they measured the impact. The frequency, length and intensity of headaches were all reduced. Based on self-assessment, work performance improved by 19%, and the programme showed an ROI of 115%.

Obesity and mental illness risks

BUPA Wellness introduced the approximately 70 participants at the conference to the risks of obese employees and mental illnesses.

Obesity facts:
- 1 in 5 adults in the UK is obese; 2/3 of men and >1/2 women are overweight or obese, with the number trebling over the last 20 years
- Obesity may cause 18 million sick days a year, 30,000 deaths a year and GBP 2 billion a year of indirect costs to the economy.

Mental ill-health facts:
- 30% of all people have a mental illness – ranging from mental ill-health to a mental disorder
- 36% of absences are caused by stress, anxiety or depression
- Mental ill-health costs 2.5 days per person per year; the number of claims has risen by 88% in 7 years.

BUPA Wellness showed various case studies covering companies where intervention had been successful against obesity and mental illness. The main message is that persistence and continuous management and investment are a precondition for success.

The challenges of an ageing population
Another major theme at the conference was the aging population, with the mean age of European workers increasing rapidly because of rising retirement ages.

Dr. Vegard Skirbekk of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria explained the challenges for employers:

- The amount of lost working time and disability increases with age
- Many cognitive and physical abilities decline with age, although not all
- Some determinants of job performance such as energy, mental ability, physical ability, health and strength are affected by age
- Work where employees are not challenged has a negative influence on their cognitive performance at older ages.

Shifting responsibility for old age pensions
Margrit Schmid, Head of the Swiss Life Network, explained that while demographics are significant for economic growth, the age composition of the labour market is becoming increasingly important. In particular, the ongoing ageing of the population places financial and other strains on our social security and occupational retirement systems, leading to discussions worldwide on re-apportioning the burden of old age pensions. With potentially more responsibility shifting from the state to employers and individuals, the Swiss Life Network is actively assisting multinational companies to ensure the financial security  financial wellbeing  of their employees after retirement.

Variety of wellness presentations
The conference agenda also included presentations by:

- European pharmaceutical company Nycomed on their “Stress Toolbox”
- NH Hotels, Spain, demonstrating the link between motivated employees and satisfied customers
- Janssen Cilag, Spain, on the wide range of wellbeing tools available for their managers and employees.

About the Wellbeing University
The Wellbeing University was founded by several leading companies together with Swiss Life Network Partner IHI danmark a/s in 2002. The 6th Annual Wellbeing Conference will take place in the UK in 2008, sponsored by IHI’s parent company BUPA in the UK and SANITAS in Spain.

*Presenteeism: When people show up for work sick, injured, stressed or burned-out – leading to a drain on productivity.

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