Worker smile with blue hat

Workplace wellness is a top priority for business, but increasingly comes at a higher cost

Monday , 21 August 2023 by Sue Hamilton
  • Sixth Workplace Wellness study canvases more businesses than ever before
  • New Zealand organisations are well and truly embracing benefits of employee welfare, but at a substantial cost
  • Median annual cost of absence now stands at $1,235 per absent employee / a cost of around $2.86 billion per annum for the total economy vs. $1.85 billion in 2020
  • Rate of absence now stands at an average of 5.5 days per employee, taking into account new legislation - equivalent to nearly 10 million working days per annum
  • Net 49.7 per cent of businesses saw an increase in employee stress, with financial concerns at the core, while 22 per cent reported ‘quiet quitting’
  • Read the full Workplace Wellness 2023 Report here.

Southern Cross Health Insurance and BusinessNZ have released their sixth edition of the Workplace Wellness study. The findings reveal an ever-increasing focus from businesses on employee health and wellbeing, however it’s clear there are significant factors putting pressure on decision makers to get the balance right around costs.

Southern Cross Health Insurance CEO Nick Astwick said, “This survey enables a deep understanding of what’s driving issues like workplace absence, the cost of absence, and what we can do as employers to help our people be as productive as possible. We all benefit when our people are physically and mentally healthy, and therefore fully engaged.”

Astwick said that as a not-for-profit Friendly Society Southern Cross Health Insurance is “in the business of wellness; helping more New Zealanders live healthier years and to be more productive in the country’s interest”, but it’s not the only one.

“The results make it clear most organisations are prioritising wellbeing, but there’s no escaping they are doing so in very challenging times, where the cost of living and inflationary pressures throughout the economy are almost universally New Zealanders’ key concerns.

“It’s important to acknowledge how pressing these financial issues are, as they dictate the way we respond. As always, business leaders keep an eye on costs, as we should, but we mustn’t lose sight of the support our people need to enable them to be at their best. This support may come at a cost to businesses, for example providing extra wellbeing days, training and development and health insurance.

“That said, good health is priceless. This includes mental, physical, and social health, so I am encouraged by some of the key findings in this year’s report:

  • employers are increasingly taking a proactive stance on workplace wellness in their day-to-day operations
  • 89 per cent of organisations surveyed ensure steps are taken towards creating a culture that endorses staying at home if unwell
  • and more and more organisations have processes in place to support team members suffering from stress including employee assistance programmes, flexible working, diversity and inclusion policies and practices, mental wellbeing training and support for parents juggling working from home and caring for children.

Balancing legislated change, corporate commitment and cost

Astwick said the strides businesses are making to look after employees in the workplace, and even beyond – in their homes and communities are impressive.

“Some change has been legislated, for example increased sick leave, but the Workplace Wellness survey shows some business leaders are moving beyond the ‘rules’ and embedding good practice day to day.

Astwick also acknowledged a significant shift from 13th to seventh place of one contributor to absence; ‘paid sickness absence days being viewed as an entitlement by those suspected to be not actually sick’. “It’s possible this is one scenario where ‘quiet quitting’1 comes to the fore, with some people making the most of the ability to take time out, just because they can, in addition to working strictly within their allotted hours.”

Astwick added, “The survey showed an increase in people taking leave, to which they are entitled, of up to 5.5 days per employee. This is equivalent to nearly 10 million working days per annum across New Zealand. Given the legislative change in 2021 to 10 days we’ll be interested to see whether this increases in coming years.”

The most common approach to sick leave is to offer the legislated 10 days per year (accumulated up to a maximum of 20 days), at 80.5 per cent of all businesses surveyed. However, some enterprises offer more than 10 days per year, at 12.2 per cent.

Astwick said, “We’d put ourselves in that camp. Southern Cross Health Society offers up to five additional days of wellbeing leave, enabling our people to get on top of health and wellness issues more quickly so they can do their jobs well, supporting our members. We do this alongside other initiatives such as offering a holiday purchase programme and flexible work policies.”

“While having people know they will be supported to stay home when sick is the right message to send, the resulting challenge for businesses in both increased cost and absent staff is substantial for any business to sustain.

The report also highlights a significant increase in the cost of absence per employee which now stands at $1,235, amounting to $2.86 billion per annum. This compares to previous years’ Workplace Wellness survey results of between $600 to $1,000 per annum with a total of $1.85 billion reported in 2021.

“Yes, factors such as legislation, an expanding workforce and a natural rise in income have also contributed to this,2 but the money has to come from somewhere. I’m sure there are many leaders who, like me, are having to make some tough calls on operational costs and investing in future plans.”

Causes of employee stress

The survey identified workload and long hours as the leading contenders for work-related stress, while outside the workplace, one of the standout findings is the increase in employees’ stress related to ‘financial concerns’. Whereas in 2018, ‘financial concerns’ stood at 41.3 per cent across all enterprises, this now stands at 62 per cent.

When it comes to financial concerns outside the workplace, while businesses can offer competitive salaries and wages plus other benefits, for example, health insurance, subsidised transport, or free healthy food, these are coming under pressure.

Astwick said, “Eventually something has to give. There’s only so much that businesses can do to absorb these costs before having to pass these on to customers or cutting them loose.” 

Business is doing the wellness mahi

Acknowledging the main thrust of the survey, workplace wellness, Astwick suggested that the biggest outtake is the obvious improvement in the way businesses and organisations are trying to care for their teams and acknowledge the ways they like to work.

“Nearly all organisations see having the opportunity to work from home, where able and appropriate, as a positive move. Many employees are happier to have more flexibility. This is a really interesting area.

“It’s something we offer at Southern Cross, but we have found some employees feel isolated working remotely and struggle to collaborate well. The latter can have a material impact on overall organisational productivity. There’s a lot to be said for the genius idea uncovered around the water-cooler. I believe flexible working warrants further exploration.”

At the end of the day, Astwick believes New Zealand businesses are on the right track and fully cognisant of their need to support their people.

“Businesses are the backbone of the economy. They generate income, pay tax, drive innovation, and create opportunities for people to grow and to sustain their whānau and communities, but they can’t achieve any of this without supporting their people to be well.”

Examples of businesses doing workplace wellness, well

Unison Networks

Unison brings power and fibre to more than 114,000 customers in Hawkes Bay, Taupo and Rotorua. Powering the region's people and economy means connecting all those New Zealand households to the national grid - and maintaining that strong connection.

It takes a considerable amount of effort to take care of 9,200km of power lines and 800km of fibre cables, in all kinds of weather and every hour of the day. Unison's employees are the energy behind the energy, so taking care of the team is just as important to Unison as taking care of the lines.

"Unison's purpose is all about enabling our communities to prosper," says Toby Davis, Chief Executive Unison Contracting Services Limited. “At the centre of that is ensuring that our people are healthy; we absolutely feel it's our responsibility to deliver that for them.”


Including health insurance as part of Weleda’s employment package has also been a selling point when the company has been recruiting. "When we mention health insurance, I can see people’s eyes light up, and they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, that would be wonderful’," says Fred Dryburgh, Chief Executive Officer.

"It’s one extra element for us, in addition to Weleda being a great place to work. We really push that work-life balance; we don’t just say it, we mean it. Flexibility and caring for each other are embedded in the way we operate. When you put it all together, it does help explain why we have quite low turnover – and even previous staff members coming back to work for us again, which is nice."

Overall, says Fred, it’s important for everyone at Weleda to enjoy a good quality of life and take care of themselves and their families.

Cardrona Alpine Resort

If there's one word to describe Cardrona Alpine Resort, it would be family. Steeped in tradition and led by values, Cardrona takes caring for their people, ngā tangata, very seriously.

Who could have imagined that on 19 March 2020 all borders would be closed to international visitors? Not Cardrona Alpine Resort who were gearing up for a full mountain of activities with up to 5,000 visitors a day projected, along with planned international ski and snowboard events.

“Making staff feel secure was absolutely critical during this period,”” explains General Manager, Bridget Legnavsky.

"We have a very strong understanding of manaakitanga or caring for the wellbeing of people's mana," says Bridget, "We expect our staff to look after our guests and they can only do that if they look after themselves.”