Corporations and academics have teamed up to back a blueprint to improve health literacy in the workplace, saying healthier lifestyles help employees and boost their productivity.
The Blueprint for Business Action on Health Literacy is a free toolbox accessible to all companies and organisations aiming to make employees more health literate.
"The idea of the blueprint is to provide some tools for companies that want to implement health in the workplace and in their programmes with a particular focus on health literacy," said Alexander Rödiger, director of EU affairs at the global health care company MSD, at the launch of the blueprint in the European Parliament on Wednesday (27 March).
With employees expected to be more flexible and mobile, psychological strain is on the increase.
Though the psychological effects of stress are more subtle, health experts say prolonged stress is associated with depression, anxiety and panic attacks as well as heart disease, gastro-intestinal disorders and migraines.
In the context of the EU's Europe 2020 strategy, CSR Europe, the business network for socially responsible companies, launched the Enterprise 2020 initiative in October 2010.
The blueprint forms part of this initiative, which highlights the contribution that businesses can make to achieve the EU goals for building a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy.
Companies involved in the Enterprise 2020 Collaborative Project on Health Literacy are in the process of developing tools aimed at empowering employees by improving their knowledge in health and well-being.
The organisations behind the blueprint include both public-private partners and academia, such as Microsoft, MSD, Edenred, Nestlé and Maastricht University.
"It shall help companies with their health in the workplace programmes, benefit employees and it should also benefit society in the long run because work-life-balance is becoming more and more important," Rödiger said.
"The work life is moving into the private life. Sometimes the private life also happens during the work hours, so the boundaries are not that clear anymore today," he added.
Health literacy 'crucial'
Health literacy is the capacity to make sound health decisions in the context of everyday life; in the home, community, workplace, health system, marketplace and the political arena.
It has a focus on the individual and empowers him or her to take greater control over their own health and well-being.
The benefits of improving health literacy include better communication, greater adherence to treatment, greater ability to engage in self-care, improved health status, greater efficiency and cost savings to the workplace and health system as a whole.
"We can't underestimate at all how important health literacy is, whether it's about empowerment of the employees and citizens in the management of health and wellbeing, but also about how crucial this is for today's economy," said British Green MEP Jean Lambert.
Lambert, who is also a member of the European Parliament's committee on employment and social affairs, added that today's work environment is in many ways radically different from that 20 years ago, with greater mobility, flexibility and connectivity.
"These are key requirements for employees," the MEP stressed.
"In some respects it's very positive. It can give people greater autonomy in terms of their working lives. But it's also a challenge which requires greater self-responsibility from the employee and it's a much more complex management situation."
Great challenges in the workplace ahead
Nathalie Renaudin, public affairs director at Edenred, a health solutions company, outlined challenges impacting on businesses. First of all, the workforce will get older at the same time as the population will shrink.
Secondly, chronic diseases are already spreading for the population under the age of 65. A growing number of people in their 40s live with one or two chronic conditions.
"These challenges demonstrate that Europe needs to catch up and that there is a gap between the resources available, the workforce, and the productivity in the future," Renaudin said.
"A major factor affecting productivity is health. Around 350 million working days are lost in the EU each year due to illness, and the economic crisis has increased the levels of stress and depression which are among the major disabilities," the public affairs director added.
Renaudin said health at work is not only about preventing ill health. It's also a way of promoting well-being which is the basis for being able to actively contribute to business and society.