Fact: the UK is in the grip of an obesity epidemic. We have the fastest-growing obesity rate of all developed countries, and it has been predicted that obesity could soon overtake tobacco as the biggest preventable cause of death.
The government has recognised this threat to our health and is taking wide-ranging steps to encourage people to eat healthier and take more exercise. But can employers play a part in this effort?
First and foremost, a person’s health is clearly their own responsibility. If the individual is not committed to changing their lifestyle, no amount of cajoling or encouragement from their employer is going to turn a determined couch potato into a yoga nut.
But the British Heart Foundation believes employers can play a major role in helping people to become more active and healthy, and in motivating their staff to take their health seriously.
Most of us spend about 60% of our waking hours at the workplace. If all you do during those hours is sit at a desk, drive a vehicle or operate machinery – moving only to grab an occasional cup of tea or a biscuit – then you are losing a huge chunk of the day to inactivity. If you then drive home and collapse in front of the television, then at no point during a working week are you getting the necessary exercise to keep your heart healthy.
This is not the fault of employers. When they employ someone to do a desk job, they naturally expect that person to be at their desk for much of the day.
What the British Heart Foundation is saying is there is a range of things employers can do to help to improve the health of their staff – and they have good reason to do so. Evidence shows that workers who take regular exercise, have a healthy diet and don’t smoke take less time off work and are much more productive.
The British Heart Foundation’s Well@Work campaign, funded by the Department of Health and Active England – which is funded by Sport England and the Big Lottery Fund – is seeking to find out which interventions by employers are the most successful.
Nine projects across England are trying a variety of methods from giving employees pedometers, to adding healthier options to the staff canteen menu. Others are hosting health awareness days, providing bicycle sheds or showers, introducing a scheme to loan bikes to employees, or subsidising gym membership.
Some things are easy and cheap to change, such as making drinking water readily available. Others can take a bit more consideration, such as introducing flexible hours – but this can often make a huge difference to an employee’s ability to exercise during the day.
HR departments have a crucial role to play in enabling and encouraging healthier lifestyles, and it is their responsibility to bring the issue to the attention of senior management. HR teams can put staff health on the agenda, but it is important to get support from those at the top.
Practically, HR teams clearly have a role in supporting any health ‘champions’ in their work, and may well take a lead in handling the policy elements and their process through to approval.
The British Heart Foundation has worked with employers for years by encouraging them to consider the health of their workforce, and we are delighted it is becoming a boardroom discussion point. So take action now to benefit both your staff and your business.
By Nicki Cooper, head of education, British Heart Foundation
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