Health conscious – does a fit workforce mean a happy workplace?

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The benefits of making healthier lifestyle choices are not exactly rocket science, even if many of us struggle to sustain such ‘good’ behaviour. With the average employee spending a third of their lives at work, employers – helped by occupational health – have a pivotal role to play in communicating, facilitating and enabling lifestyle change that will stick, as Iain Thomson explains.

The UK is getting fatter. Soaring obesity rates have made the UK the sixth fattest nation in the world, with as many as one in four Brits now obese and a further third overweight.

But as waistlines expand, there is more to it than just going up a dress or trouser size. Carrying excess weight can cause a number of issues, including a greater risk of life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

About the author

Iain Thomson is director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage

There are daily challenges too; being overweight puts extra strain on joints and can lead to backache, tiredness and even breathing difficulties. Simply put, it can make the day-to-day tasks we all take for granted that little bit harder.

And it’s not just the physical; an unhealthy lifestyle and poor diet has also been shown to increase mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem. But unlike physical symptoms, mental health issues can be much tougher for others to pick up on.

With the average employee spending a third of their lives at work, it is clear that employers have the opportunity to help people. While some bosses may think their employees’ lifestyle choices are beyond their control, work can shape behaviour from what we eat to how active we are.

To help tackle obesity and create a happier, fitter and more productive workforce, business leaders should listen to the advice they get from OH and throw their weight behind promoting healthy habits and behaviours. Offering wellness benefits, discounted gym membership and healthy eating options are also great starting points.

Keep weight in check

Many employees blame work for the choices they make when it comes to food and exercise. Research by recruitment website CV-Library has suggested nearly three-quarters of workers believe their job negatively affects what they eat, with more than 36% saying they gain weight as a result.

But when it comes to shifting unwanted weight, it takes more than cutting out a slice of cake or two. Regular exercise alongside a healthy diet is the key to keeping our bodies in tip top condition, both physically and mentally.

People are often fooled into thinking that cutting out calories will do the trick when it comes to weight management. But lowering calorie intake will also lower metabolism, which can actually delay weight loss in the long run.

By contrast, regular exercise has been shown to boost the metabolic rate, which will burn calories and help people to lose weight. By combining a healthy diet with regular exercise, the effects on both the body and general health will be much more than skin deep. Employers should make the most of opportunities to keep the conversation around exercise and wellbeing going by promoting initiatives such as National Fitness Day and Healthy Eating Week.

But, while employees may recognise the benefits, a lot of them blame a lack of time for not being able to fit in exercise. Again according to CV-Library, a huge 66.7% admit they sometimes skip their workout because they’ve had to stay late at work.

To help employees overcome this hurdle, employers should understand their employees’ working patterns and offer support. From subsidised gym membership to lunchtime exercise classes or yoga and company fun runs, there are lots of different ways to encourage employees up their exercise. Employers can also offer flexi-time, allowing staff to start or finish earlier giving them time to fit in some “me time”.

Healthy body, healthy mind

We all know mental health issues are widespread, with as many as one in six workers suffering from some kind of depression, anxiety or stress. It’s vital that employers make sure their staff know mental health matters. Companies should have in place a company-wide mental health plan, creating a culture where it’s the norm to be open and honest about how people are feeling.

Training managers on how to spot and deal with mental health issues or inviting a professional to come in and give advice on stress-reduction can be a great way to break down the stigma – and, again, this is something occupational health is well-placed to lead on.

Physical exercise stimulates hormones, which help to boost moods, combat anxiety and make people feel less sluggish and more motivated. It can also give people a greater sense of self-esteem and self-control – all of which can come in very handy in the workplace. A lot of employees lead busy lives, often juggling work with family commitments and having as much energy as possible can help.

So, for businesses where number-crunching, problem-solving and data is part of the daily routine, introducing regular breaks and encouraging employees to get out and about during their lunch break could help staff work smarter and not just harder.

Rested employees

Finally, we all know how important sleep is. If employees are burning energy during the day, they’ll find it easier to relax and unwind come the evening and that means better sleep. Well-rested employees are more likely to feel energised and less daunted by tasks, meaning they’ll be able to give more. So when it comes to creating a positive, happier workforce, it’s about showing them how much you value their wellbeing.

It’s not about dictating what people should do but understanding what would interest them when it comes to healthier living.

While larger organisations will have more resources at their fingertips, this doesn’t mean smaller companies shouldn’t get involved too. Promoting walk-to-work or cycle-to-work schemes and providing changing facilities and lockers can encourage people to make healthier decisions. Something as simple as popping a fruit bowl or healthy lunch options on the table can help, too.

What is clear is that exercising more and eating healthily can make a huge difference to how people feel and that will translate into their work. And occupational health, working with HR, business leaders and managers, can make a real difference in this area. Simply listening to what they would like to see introduced, and setting shared values and behaviours can lead to much happier, more engaged employees who will ultimately make your business stronger. There really are no downsides.

References
‘UK most overweight country in Western Europe says OECD’, BBC, November 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41953530

Unhealthy employees costing British firms more than one month a year in lost productivity, February 2017, Vitality Health, https://www.vitality.co.uk/media/britains-healthiest-workplace-unhealthy-employees-cost-economy-73-billion/ 

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