The Wealth of Health

8 mins read

A focus on employee wellbeing could improve national productivity by as much as 10%, according to a new report. But the stigma surrounding mental health in manufacturing must be broken down first

Despite being near the top of the table when it comes to UK productivity, manufacturing is facing a crisis: productivity has flat-lined since the 2008 recession, and with Brexit and the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the horizon, it’s becoming increasingly important to redress that.

Various solutions have been proposed – increased investment in technology, innovation and skills have been previously touted as the cure to end manufacturing’s productivity ills, to little success. However, a new EEF report, entitled Unlocking employee productivity, explores a new angle: that of employee wellbeing and happiness.

A £33bn problem

More than 70 million working days are lost in the UK each year to poor mental health. This, according to Brendan Street, professional head of wellbeing at Nuffield Health, costs around £33bn per year – or £1,200 for every man, woman and child in the country. “When the average cost of treatment for anxiety is around £1,000, it’s clear that a nationwide focus on wellbeing can have a huge benefit for individuals and businesses alike,” he says.

Getting people back into work, therefore, will have a major impact on national business performance. The EEF report estimates that an improvement in overall mental health can increase productivity by as much as 10%, adding that ‘if we want employees to bring their whole selves to work and to exert maximum effort, energy, vitality and creativity to their jobs, employers need to do more to support and promote their wider wellbeing.’

This point is reinforced by EEF’s HSS director, Steve Jackson. “Traditionally, we have been very much focused on the safety side of health & safety,” he says. “The health side has always been there, but tended to focus more on physical health – exposure to noise, vibration or dust, for instance. Wellbeing is a topic that UK manufacturing as a whole is lagging behind on. There’s a strong business case to say that a focus on wellbeing is a vital part in improving productivity and performance.”

The EEF report cites a similar study of 17,000 workers in Japan, which found that those with even low severity depression had productivity rates of 14.8% lower than average. Another study of 800 American workers found that mild depression made workers between 4% and 17% less productive. In the UK, an economic survey found that emotional wellbeing and happiness at work led to a 12% increase in productivity. ‘Numerous studies have shown that organisations with employees who are happier and more fulfilled in their work, who enjoy autonomy and control in their jobs and who experience less strain as a result of their work are usually higher performing and more productive than their competitors,’ the report says.

Mental health v Mental illness

It’s important at this point to establish the link between mental health and mental illness. “People see ‘mental health’ merely as an absence of mental illness,” says Nuffield’s Street. “In reality, it’s just like physical health – you can improve your physical health by going to the gym or eating well, for example. It’s much the same with mental health. A focus on healthy living will have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing as well as your physical health.”

Street explains that there are three stages of mental health activity that businesses can undertake – each of which has a financial benefit to the company:

  • Enhancement – This is for people who are “living well, but want to live better”, says Street. For every £1 spent on this stage, the company will receive £8 in better productivity.
  • Prevention – This is to help those who may be at risk of suffering poor mental health. With this stage, every £1 spent will see a £6 return for the company.
  • Treatment – This is the reactive stage, to help people suffering from a mental illness. Investing in this stage will bring in £5 for every £1 spent, says Street.

As this proves, a focus on ensuring good mental health provides more return on a company’s investment than merely looking after those already suffering with a mental illness. Despite this, the EEF report found that just 15% of manufacturers assess the risk that work will have on workers’ mental health, and only one in five invest in measures that promote mental health – a factor that can increase productivity by as much as 17%.

A focus on wellbeing can also bring benefits for manufacturers looking at lean production techniques, according to the EEF report. “Taking a lean approach is one way to boost productivity,” says Jackson. “However, our report has found that going down the lean route without considering the individual and getting their buy-in won’t have the right impact.”

The report itself advises that manufacturers should ‘pay adequate attention to the positive impact on the mental health, emotional wellbeing and engagement of employees’ before looking to implement lean techniques. The desired outcome (increased output) will only be achieved by getting the processes and the people right, it asserts.

Despite the evidence, UK manufacturers appear to be unaware of the link between productivity and wellbeing. EEF’s report asked respondents why they currently invest in employee wellbeing. Only 7.7% said that they did so to improve productivity, compared to just over a quarter (28.6%) who hoped to reduce sickness absence, and 31.9% looking to improve employee engagement.

‘Enhancing productivity is only rarely the most important reason for employers to promote wellbeing, and productivity measures are not routinely used to evaluate the impact of these practices,’ says the report.

What can be done?

The report provides several suggestions on how to both raise awareness of mental health, and improve the wellbeing of staff on-site. Some of these can be quite simple – supplying healthy food or providing massages (see case study, opposite). Others may take more time.

One such suggestion made by EEF is assessing job design – ‘balancing the need to get the job done effectively with the need to ensure that the job is fulfilling and interesting for the employee.’ Roles that allow control and autonomy tend to breed happier, more engaged and more productive workers. A focus on employees’ engagement with their role, giving them the opportunity to learn new things, challenge themselves and have an involvement in CI schemes has a clear impact on their wellbeing.

A culture of mental health awareness, however, starts at the top. Shopfloor managers are best-placed to spot early signs of poor mental health before they manifest into anything more serious, says Jackson – but only if they are trained accordingly. “You don’t have to invest a huge amount of money into wellbeing if you get your staff trained properly,” he says. “Unfortunately, those skills are still relatively rare in manufacturing sites. The survey shows that only a third of managers have the skills necessary, and the number needs to be a lot higher. Line managers, in particular, are the jam in the sandwich when it comes to wellbeing. They are the ones who can look for any changes in behaviour, or parts of the job that are causing stress, and speak to their staff before the issue escalates.”

Simply encouraging a culture where people feel they can speak up is the first, and most important, step, Jackson continues. “Something like a Toolbox Talk can be an ideal way to break down the barriers. They can be themed around a different topic each week – for instance, healthy eating. Speak to people, listen to what they have to say and act on it. There’s no silver bullet, and no solution that will work for every company, so managers have to be receptive to new ideas.”

It’s important to remember, adds Street, that it may not be problems in the workplace that are causing employees’ mental health to suffer. “Often, work will be the only thing in people’s lives that they value,” he says. “In cases like this, it may be that that individual needs to find other things to do, outside of work, to boost their mental health and ‘train’ themselves up, like they would at the gym or by going for a run.

“It’s also vital that any mental health awareness activity you undertake isn’t forgotten after a day – conversation will die out, but positive action remains.”

Removing the stigma

Unfortunately, no matter how good the prevention and awareness schemes surrounding mental health and wellbeing may be, there is an elephant in the room that is hindering progress. “There’s still a huge amount of stigma around mental health,” says Jackson. “We want to try and demystify it and make it OK to talk about mental wellbeing.

By recognising that you may have an issue, it can get sorted. There are a few great campaigns out there that can help remove the taboo and encourage people to speak up.”

Nuffield’s Street goes one further. “It’s more than a taboo,” he says. “It’s a genuine fear of discrimination, especially in an industry like manufacturing. Employees will be thinking that if they speak up about a mental health issue, they’ll be seen as weaker and potentially overlooked for promotion or a pay rise.

“On top of this, employers are scared of labelling staff as ‘mentally ill’,” he continues. “They will want to put together some internal guidelines around how to look after staff who are showing signs of mental illness. Wording these can be potentially be a minefield. There needs to be better guidance and policy from government around how to put mental health into words.”

Manufacturers have an innate advantage over other industries, with the discipline and culture associated with good health & safety woven into the fabric of the way businesses in this industry are run. While wellbeing is less ‘concrete’ than other health & safety practices, its importance to the running of a site is arguably even more important. Despite this, EEF’s survey suggests that manufacturers give lower priority to psychological wellbeing than other elements of health & safety. If that were to change, and manufacturers devoted energy and resource to boosting psychological wellbeing through effective job design, measures to support engagement and psychological resilience, it’s likely the industry would benefit from the boost in productivity that would follow.

After all, as EEF’s Jackson concludes: “A happy workforce is a productive workforce.”

The full report can be read at

Case Study: Farne Salmon & Trout

Christmas is an exciting time of year for everyone. But, for businesses, the build-up to the holiday season can be a busy one. For Farne Salmon & Trout, based in the Borders of Scotland, December 2014 was particularly tough, and led to a spike in the number of accidents on site.

Led by health & safety officer, Fraser Rankine, the company launched an investigation into the cause of the accidents. The majority of the incidents were recorded as ‘Struck against Stationary Objects’. Rankine surmised that the increased pressure around the Christmas rush had led to stressed, over-worked staff looking to cut corners to get the work done.

In the wake of this revelation, Rankine began a site-wide focus on health awareness and recognising the signs of stress. Managers were trained on the business benefits of good mental health, and how to spot any issues amongst their staff. Free massage sessions are provided twice a week, along with in-house yoga. This mental health focus has also slowed down the production process to make it more manageable at peak times.

As a result of this, 18 ‘Struck against Stationary Object’ accidents in 2014 became just one in 2015. Not only is the site now a safer place to work, it is also a much more open environment. Rankine explains how the focus on wellbeing has been the catalyst for this.

“We needed to make mental health more visible, so we set up a stand in the canteen and handed out information about wellbeing,” he says. “We wanted it tospread across the shopfloor via word-of-mouth, so it didn’t feel like management were preaching downwards. That said, all our managers have an open-door policy, as does the occupational nurse, so people are encouraged to come and discuss concerns and problems confidentially.”

Rankine wants manufacturers to follow in Farne’s footsteps and start speaking more around mental health and wellbeing. “There’s still an industry-wide stigma around mental health. It needs to become more acceptable to speak up about any problems you may be having,” he says. “It’s important to remember that poor mental health may not be caused by issues at work; often, people going through trouble at home will struggle to perform properly at work. In these cases, the workplace has an important role to play in ensuring they are looked after.”

Rankine’s work at Farne saw him named Safe Workplace Champion at the 2017 Manufacturing Champions Awards – entries for this year’s awards close on 14 September.

Enter now at