Here is a test for you. What is the best preventive medicine for heart disease, stroke, cancer, glaucoma and depression? For reducing the side effects of chemotherapy? Cutting levels of obesity, or slowing down the ageing process? And limiting the risk of conditions such as Type 2 diabetes?
The answer is simpler than you might think – and the good news for occupational health (OH) professionals is that it’s something that can easily be built into a working day. Gym membership is not required, neither are dramatic changes in lifestyle. Have you guessed it yet? The answer is walking – an increase in the number of steps that employees in sedentary occupations take each day. And with this in mind, an Australian company is setting out to transform the habits of employees across the world.
The organisation, Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) was founded in 2004 in Melbourne by a team led by former Australian Olympic champion Herb Elliott. GCC was concerned that health was becoming increasingly sidelined in corporate life, and set out to find a way of launching an initiative which could easily be incorporated into the working day.
First, GCC looked at statistics compiled by Melbourne’s Deakin University, which has carried out studies on fat metabolism, fat metabolism during exercise, and the impact of diet and exercise on chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“They found that health perks offered to staff in most organisations were only taken up by a minority,” says Tom Sermon, European director of GCC. “For instance, the opportunity to sign up for a marathon or triathlon was only taken up by a young and fit 1% – and this group was at low risk of developing health problems in any case.
“Joining a gym was only attractive to a minority, too. Between 12% and 14% of employees wanted to take up this option.” Again, these tended to be the younger and fitter members of the workforce.
So GCC set out to reach the 87% of the workforce who don’t want to go to the gym, may develop health problems if they don’t take exercise of some sort, and aren’t happy with the idea of donning shorts and running shoes.
“The word we use is ‘accessibility’,” says Sermon. “When we looked at this, we decided that what people call the ‘usual excuses’ aren’t excuses at all – they are good reasons. People say they are too busy, that family commitments get in the way, and that they lack confidence about going to the gym – and this is true. It is stopping them. We had to find a way of offering them a physical activity that was more accessible.
“To use a stereotype, the thinking was that if you can engage a 64-year-old man who is 10-15 kilos overweight, two to three years off retirement, and has not taken exercise for several years, you can engage anyone. People lose the habit of exercising, and the aim was to get them back into this habit by making it as easy and unthreatening as possible.”
The issue of accessibility is important. While many employees would like to adopt healthier habits, they often find it hard to sustain a fitness regime. Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire has carried out research with more than 3,000 participants which showed that at the outset, while 52% of participants were confident they would stick to a resolution, one year later, only 12% had achieved their goal. Why, then, do some resolutions work?
Men and women have different paths to success, the survey found. Women did best when they shared their plans with their friends, which helped them to overcome setbacks. Men prefer goal-setting or focusing on the rewards of achieving their goal, and breaking down their resolution into achievable steps. The GCC programme takes such psychological facts into account.
The GCC encourages participants to increase the number of steps they take each day from 3,500 – the average distance walked by a sedentary worker – to the 10,000 or more recommended by the World Health Organisation.
To sign up to the programme, employers have to pay GCC £49 per employee, and each participant then receives a pack that includes a backpack and two pedometers. Staff are organised into teams of seven, and then join the 16-week programme, recording and entering their daily step count into the GCC website.
The site adds each individual’s step counts to their team total, and then converts this to a kilometre/mile distance, plotting the team’s progression along a virtual world tour. Over the 16 weeks, participants increase their activity, both structured (ie, planning to go for a walk at a certain time), and unstructured (ie, seeing a chance to walk and taking it). As the GCC progresses, participants change their behaviour and more and more activity is incorporated into their day.
This year’s GCC starts on 20 May and ends 16 weeks later on 7 September.
“The more active they are, the further they go, the healthier they become, and the more productive your organisation becomes,” says Sermon.
The idea is that this virtual journey is educational as well as health-boosting. During the programme, participants interact virtually with each location, finding out about its customs, facts, history, foods, politics, and geography.
There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that this scheme will benefit those taking part – and cut absence rates as a result. Medical research carried out on GCC participants found that after completing the programme, there was a 32.8% reduction in the number of women classified as having increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Women also had an average weight loss of 13 lbs and an average reduction in waist measurement of two inches.
An alarming 95.3% of men taking part in the event had an increased risk of developing these conditions. After completing the scheme, the percentage of men at risk had fallen by 23.3%. The survey also found that GCC participants took 41% less sick days than their non-participating colleagues, amounting to an average of 2.3 fewer days.
This all fits into the bigger picture for OH, in which health promotion is part of the profession’s wider remit within corporate life. Sickness absence is still a major headache for organisations of all sizes, and improving the fitness of the workforce can have a major impact on the bottom line. The 2009 Sickness Absence Survey by manufacturer’s organisation EEF and insurance provider Unum found 36% of the 697 organisations surveyed reported a rise in the number of employees being off for more than one month between 2007-08.
In extreme cases, adults who might otherwise be useful members of the workforce are consigned to a lifetime of ill health and disability. According to the NHS Information Centre, hospital admissions for obesity in England increased by 60% in 2008-09, with 8,085 admissions for obesity, compared to 5,056 in 2007-08. Even more shockingly, this figure represented a 360% rise since 2003-04, when just 1,746 people were admitted with such problems. Radical solutions such as weight-loss surgery are a drain on the over-stretched NHS.
So what would people prefer – stomach stapling and gastric bypasses, or a walk round the block? The answer might seem obvious, but unhealthy habits die hard. With this in mind, GCC has come up with another incentive – boosting the health of children. This year, the aim of the GCC is to raise money so that 120,000 UK schoolchildren can take part in a similar programme.
The Children’s Challenge will engage school children in a similar way to employees, measuring their footsteps on a pedometer as they go on a virtual walk around the world. For every participant an organisation enrols in the GCC, a school child will be enrolled free of charge. The children’s event will run from September to November this year.
Case study – Nestlé UK and Ireland
|Across Nestle, 6,000 employees worldwide took part in the GCC in 2009, with 61% reporting increased fitness levels. Nestle UK and Ireland – which employs almost 7,000 people across 23 sites in the UK and Ireland – was an enthusiastic supporter of the programme. Dr David Batman, head of employee wellness at Nestle UK, says that the GCC has been particularly successful in encouraging staff of all age groups and levels of fitness to exercise.|
“In 2006 we looked at the existing OH systems that we had in place,” he says. “Sixty per cent of our workforce are over 45 – and we needed to develop schemes to help reduce the health risks of an ageing workforce. We looked at research from the Oxford Health Alliance which focuses on three key areas: nutrition, exercise and smoking, and set out to address these and also included mental resilience.
“What we wanted was a scheme that was simple, that anyone can do, and which would have a measurable effect.”
Nestle had workplace gyms but found that only a minority of staff were taking advantage of them. Older employees tended to feel they would be out of place. Batman and his colleagues were keen to find a form of exercise that was more inclusive.
“If you look at the aim of walking 10,000 steps a day, this is something that anyone can do, at any level of fitness,” he points out. “The GCC fulfilled all our criteria and fitted in perfectly with our strategy. We have always offered staff a choice, and avoided an intrusive attitude to health, and this was also consistent with that.”
Nestlé UK introduced the GCC scheme two years ago, and it has gone from strength to strength. “In 2008 we aimed to get 10% of our 5,500 staff involved, and we actually achieved 16%. In 2009 we aimed for 20% and achieved 33%. In 2010 our aim is 50%.”
Staff at all levels have signed up to the scheme with enthusiasm. “There is a great interest in this,” says Batman. “You see people going out walking before work, at lunchtime and after work.
“Some of them walk alone, others in their groups of seven. All you have to do is put your pedometer on when you get out of bed, and put your steps into the system at the end of the day. Then you can see how your team has done, and how the other teams have done. It creates a real sense of team spirit across the organisation.”
One issue for companies might be the cost of signing up to the scheme. “The issue is – can they afford the £343 that they have to spend to register each team of seven people?” he says.
“I had no budget for this at Nestlé at all, so what I did was go to all cost centre heads and say: look at your travel budgets, see what you can cut from business travel, and support this initiative. So we were saving money, boosting our sustainability, and cutting our carbon footprint. There were huge benefits at all levels.”
Another issue is communicating with staff about the scheme and how it works. “We got over this by simply asking our corporate communications team to use the GCC logo on all their communications with staff – e-mails, the staff newspaper and so on. It was very simple.” In fact, awareness of the role of OH and of Batman as head of employee wellness has increased since the GCC was introduced.
A third reason for the success of Nestlé’s scheme has been buy-in from the top. “Not only is the CEO backing this, he is taking part. And along with six colleagues on the board, he has formed a team of seven,” says Batman. “Staff can chart their progress and the number of steps they have made. They are wearing their pedometers along with everyone else.”
The scheme has made a noticeable difference in terms of health benefits and in terms of levels of activity. Sixty-three per cent of staff reported an increase in energy, 61% reported an increase in fitness, and 59% said they had lost weight. The average weight loss was 2.5kg. Four per cent lost between 5kg and 14kg, while 15.1% lost between 2kg and 5kg, and 22.7% lost between 1kg and 2kg. Equally important for long-term health, 36% improved their cholesterol levels, 51% reduced body fat levels, and 4.5% of participants lost in excess of 5% of their body fat, and 3.5% reported that they had significantly reduced their waist size.
The GCC also helped to change employee’s long-term behaviours towards exercise:
“We conducted an independent study of the psychological health and wellbeing of more than 200 participants in the GCC 2009,” says Batman. “Data collected before and after completion of the challenge showed that participants were more productive at work and had experienced significant improvements in their overall health.
“Participants were also found to be more decisive, better able to concentrate, and more able to face up to problems. In addition, they were happier, more confident and generally felt better about themselves.
“The results show that increased physical activity can benefit both individuals and business.”