How health awareness can increase workplace productivity

By Dr Kandi Ejiofor, MBBS, BSc, DFSRH, MRCGP, below, founder of MyAdvocates

Health is always a hot topic – and its importance is only becoming more apparent. The Covid-19 pandemic and stretched NHS services have both put health at the top of our agendas. And the cost to SME businesses shouldn’t be underestimated. Since the pandemic, people are generally more aware of the spread of contagious diseases in their place of work. But businesses need to be mindful of the vast number of health issues their workforces can suffer from. And in nearly every case, poor health can lead to poor performance and productivity.

The ONS has recently announced its yearly statistics on sickness absence in the UK. In 2022, sickness levels rose to 2.6%, an increase of 0.4 percentage points from 2021 – the highest it’s been since 2004, when it was 2.7%. In 2022 alone, this is estimated to be 185.6m working days, a new record high. This is an increase of 35.8 million from 2021 and 47.4 million more than its pre-pandemic level.

Understandably, the number of days lost for respiratory illnesses did increase, and for the first time, overtook the number of days lost for mental health illness. However, once again, the most common reason for sickness absence was minor illnesses, accounting for nearly one in three occurrences.

The term, minor illness, encompasses a wide variety of health issues, which, by their nature, are usually fairly quick to pass and don’t result in long-term problems. However, this doesn’t minimise the impact they can take on the individual and business. A common cold can take its toll, especially when not dealt with early on. And we all know prevention is better than cure. So business owners should be helping employees understand how to access healthcare advice early on, as in most cases of illness, early intervention aids a speedier and better recovery.

Dr Kandi Ejiofor wants to raise awareness about the importance of seeking help early if you’re suffering with physical or mental health issues. Dr Ejiofor is a practising NHS GP and believes early intervention leads to better health outcomes across all areas of sickness. As a GP, she has seen thousands of patients needlessly suffer with minor ailments which have become major issues because of a delay in seeking help.

Dr Ejiofor said: “Unfortunately we don’t have much control over pandemics, but there’s a huge amount businesses and individuals can do to improve their health. With communicable diseases, employers should have plans in place already to allow employees to socially distance or work remote. Catching and containing it early will prevent spread around your business.

“Musculoskeletal problems can be vastly reduced by putting health and safety legislation into action, every day. Employers using staff for manual tasks should enable them to learn how to bend, lift and carry safely, as a minimum. This is crucial in reducing both the risk to your business through losses and the employees’ health.”

There is also confusion as to where to seek help for different kinds of health problems. Many of us are guilty of consulting Dr Google due to feelings of anxiety or embarrassment and finding it hard to access a GP appointment. With women’s and men’s health, sexual health and mental health this is even more likely. However Dr Ejiofor wants MyAdvocates to make Dr Google a thing of the past.

MyAdvocates is a pre-primary health care service. The cost of providing private health care insurance to staff is high and is usually out of reach for SMEs. However, SMEs then lose out to employees having to take additional time from their working hours to book a GP appointment – something that can see people on hold during busy times or having to physically attend their surgery and queue. Neither of which is time efficient for the person, or their employer.

The problem is then compounded if the employee isn’t able to get the advice they need due to choosing to see a GP when a pharmacist, 111, dentist or optician should have been their first point of call. MyAdvocates eases pressure on the NHS through triaging. Employees are able to get healthcare advice which can help direct them to the most appropriate care provider which means they can begin treatment quicker.

It can take a long time for some people to build up the confidence to speak to a healthcare professional. But by delaying getting help, they can find their health deteriorates. This is why it’s vital people take action, fast.

Dr Ejiofor added: “Many people can find speaking to a medical professional anxiety-inducing and can find it difficult to open up in a face to face setting. Unfortunately this is even more common when the concern is mental or sexual health. I’m on a mission to break down these barriers. MyAdvocates gives employees 24/7 anonymous advice from NHS GPs with an answer provided within a few hours, helping ease the waiting period and the stress that’s often associated with it.”

Dr Ejiofor’s top five actions for businesses

  • Be open with policies for sickness and absence. A lack of understanding can cause staff distress, which could make their illness more prolonged.
  • Enact the advice of occupational health and health and safety personnel. Keeping teams safe from harm at work also helps reduce risk for SMEs.
  • Choose a medical provider staff can access without incurring additional costs. With the current cost of living crisis, employees shouldn’t be worried that seeking help could be too expensive. MyAdvocates is free at point of use for all employees with no fees or excesses.
  • Communicate with employees. Mentoring schemes, company wide open mornings and email newsletters are just some of the methods businesses can use to demonstrate what employees can do to help keep themselves healthy and what support is available.
  • Practise what you preach. If employees feel secure in their roles and see the SMT able to take reasonable sickness leave, they will feel more comfortable doing so. Rest is key for recouperation. Allowing staff to take the time they need to access healthcare in the first instance of illness, should reduce the number of days sickness required. This fosters a better working culture leading to higher retention rates.