How to keep staff healthy


Late last year, insurance giant Prudential, which employs 6,000 workers in London, Belfast, Reading and Stirling, launched a three-year health at work strategy that it believes is a step change from traditional workplace health initiatives.

By 2007, it aims to have shifted its focus from simply dealing with the health issues of the absent minority to also looking at the majority who are at their desks, says people policy manager Andrew Powles.

To achieve this, the company has developed a health awareness ‘business plan’ which focuses on four key areas: muscle pain, healthy eating, pressure and cancer.

On muscle pain, to which the company loses an estimated 4,000 days a year in absence, there are now ‘floor walkers’ who check people’s posture and workstations and offer neck massages. On healthy eating, there has been a drive to put more healthy dishes into staff restaurants and employees are invited to ‘lunch and learn’ nutritional information events.

On pressure, Prudential has run a series of events with occupational health provider Bupa Wellness, checking stress levels, offering Indian head massages, and distributing leaflets on stress reduction techniques. On cancer – where the current focus is skin cancer – again staff can access literature, and in-house restaurants are encouraged to prepare dishes rich in cancer-preventing vitamin B. During the summer, employees were offered free suntan cream.

The company has been working closely with wellbeing consultancy Vielife, which specialises in addressing sleep, stress, nutrition and fitness issues. Prudential has been running an eight-week pilot with 550 staff at its Belfast office on “looking good and feeling better”, says Powles, and has appointed “health champions”.

The pilot cost £25,000, but it is estimated to have saved £300,000 just in Belfast through reduced absence rates and greater productivity, he adds. One of his big challenges was getting the initial commitment for funding. “It is saying to the business that you will get a return on your investment, but you have got to put money up front,” he says.

It would have been all too easy for HR simply to foot the bill out of its own budget, but that’s not the point. If the company is going to buy in to it, he says, the money has to come from within the business.


Back in the autumn of 2003, consumer goods multinational Unilever, which employs 15,000 people in the UK and about 250,000 worldwide, launched an innovative project to address the physical and mental health of its 40 top executives, looking at their general health and fitness, sleeping patterns and diet.

That programme, led by Dr John Cooper, Unilever’s head of corporate occupational health, took as its basic premise the fact that most top executives do not have a great deal wrong medically. What they can benefit from are tools to help them become more productive, sleep better, be more alert, have more stamina and to deal with stress and pressure more effectively.

The group found improvements in motivation, weight, energy, stamina, general health, and recovery from travel. About 60% reported improvements in areas such as cholesterol levels, upper body strength, body size, and waist to hip ratio. A quarter found they could sleep better, averaging an extra hour a night.

One-third of the group said their digestion had improved, a fifth said their skin condition had improved, one-third reported more energy and stamina, and 75% reported at least one significant improvement.

The programme has had such an impact that it is now being rolled out across its London head office of 550 people, with 50 staff taking part in the first pilot between now and December. The programme, similar to that for the executives, will look at personal fitness, and will offer individual assessments and training programmes through a workshop and then individual assessments.

There will be a module on how resilient the employee is, how they handle pressure and stress – again first in a workshop format and then, if they want, within personal sessions. There will also be work on areas such as nutrition, sleep and healthier eating and living generally.
A scorecard has been developed that people can access on the intranet to see how they are doing, while Unilever itself will be able to gather anonymised group or departmental data, says Cooper.

“There is no doubt that the concept of vitality has caught the imagination of employees. We are just on the verge, it is an exciting time,” he says. “What is happening increasingly is that there is more and more awareness within companies of the values of keeping your workforce healthy.”

Royal Mail

Royal Mail has a long history of working with staff on health issues, having had an occupational health service for 150 years and a welfare service for 75, says Dr Steven Boorman, corporate social responsibility (CSR) director and chief medical adviser.

It offers all the usual occupational health (OH) provision that you would expect from an employer of 195,000 people: health promotion, risk assessment, physiotherapy, employee assistance programmes, counselling, rehabilitation and so on. But, says Boorman, much as with Prudential, what the organisation has seen is a switch in focus from simply reactive treatment of injuries and illnesses to a more proactive approach, addressing the social and motivational benefits you get from a healthy workforce.

“It is not just about giving people back a work function, but giving them back their social function too. We have people who can now play football again with the kids and go shopping,” he explains.

Three years ago, Royal Mail was losing an estimated £1.2m a day, and this financial crisis caused a sharp rise in absence among its disenchanted, fearful staff. Now absence is down by 25%, says Boorman.

“As absence comes down, we have more money to invest in health. People often lose sight of the fact that sickness presenteeism can do an organisation just as much harm as sickness absence,” he says.

“People who are unwell but still attend are far more likely to make mistakes, be more difficult to manage and will not deliver the same level of service,” he adds.

There are ongoing health awareness campaigns within the in-house newspaper, and the company has developed a series of health Haynes Manuals, after the famous car manuals. Employees can also get health ‘MOTs’ on a regular basis.

The in-house canteen has been encouraged to develop healthier meal options – it has published a healthy eating cookbook – and there are regular events to help people to stop smoking.

Some health promotion initiatives have been so successful that several members of staff have been through them twice, adds Boorman.
“There is often a perception that spending money on this area is a bit cuddly. But at the end of the day, your health is very important. It is part of the way you are and the way you behave and it underpins your capability at work,” he explains.


As well as offering OH and wellbeing initiatives, such as access to OH, counselling, flexible working, private medical and dental cover, and generous sick pay, the broadcaster, through its BBC Club, works hard to encourage its employees to become more active and healthy.

The employee club, which has been in existence since the 1920s, is technically separate from the BBC after being spun off during former director general John Birt’s reforms of the late 1990s. It has some 20,000 members – about 70% of employees. Members pay a sliding scale fee based on salary and, in return, are offered a wide range of activities and services.

Within the larger offices, it runs gyms offering tailored programmes as well as access to team sports and aerobics studios. Where space is more limited, the club runs outreach services or simply events in meeting rooms.

“The gyms are just one part of the BBC’s wellness strategy,” says Sarah Griffin, general manager of the club. “We put a lot of effort into doing work outside the gym, which can often feel intimidating for some people,” she adds.

Other activities include clubs for running, badminton, squash, netball, hockey and cricket. These employees often take part in departmental tournaments.

As part of its outreach programmes, the club will go into individual departments, working particularly with staff who are going through change programmes, which can often be stressful, and offering advice on areas such as health, activity, nutrition and work-life balance.

Over the next three months, this activity is set to be accelerated after a successful pilot two years ago involving 12 employees, says Griffin.

“They committed to 12 weeks of activity with us and set a target to focus on – losing weight, stopping smoking or whatever it was,” says Griffin.
“We then worked with them with a fitness instructor, nutritionist and lifestyle therapist. We wanted to see if we could move from someone having good intentions to something actually becoming a habit,” she adds.

“We had 76% adherence and, even after six months, still had 25% who were regularly participating in activities,” she says.

Learning from small business: Dawson Nangle and Turnelty

 With just 15 employees and three partners, Belfast accountancy firm Dawson Nangle and Turnelty ought to be a prime example of a company that is simply too small to be able to spare the time or money for healthy working or living initiatives.

Not so, says Sharon Raine, business management adviser. In fact, ensuring workers are and remain healthy is even more important for small companies because when someone is absent, it can be felt much more keenly by the other employees.

The company has been involved with the Health Promotion Agency’s Work Well programme, which gave it an £800 grant to put a range of healthy living schemes in place.

A big focus has been making a brighter, more positive office environment, says Raine.

“We simply painted the office amazing colours – purples, greens, reds and so on. We are also encouraging people to put up art on the walls and to improve the ambience,” she says.

More generally, the unofficial 15-minute tea break at 11am has been formalised and staggered to ensure all staff get a chance to take a proper break.

Employees are encouraged to bring food to the company kitchen, which has a stove and a microwave, so that they can prepare proper, healthier lunches, with the time available for lunch extended to make this possible.

“We also offer free fruit and water, as well as a range of health information leaflets,” says Raine.

The company has introduced flexi-time to try to help cut down stress levels and has encouraged employees to speak to managers if they are struggling in any way. There are awareness talks on health-related issues, such as sensible drinking and male and female health.

Employees also get five ‘lucky days’, when they can call in sick without giving a reason.

While the company has not carried out any research to quantify the benefits, the office is now more open, motivation is up and workers at least appear to be happier and more engaged with health issues, claims Raine.

“Company initiatives can often be viewed with suspicion by staff, so you need to address the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor,” she stresses.

How HR should approach the issue

– Consider those at work as well as those on sickness absence.

– Ensure the business pays, not HR, so the business is committed.

– Advise staff on how they are doing.

– Stop just reacting, start being proactive.

– Act on sickness presenteeism as it can do as much harm as sickness absence.

Ten tips on tackling obesity at work

– Reflect on the impact of obesity on your business and on its relationship with its customers (many of whom will also be overweight and obese).

– Identify what resources/facilities/schemes are available locally to encourage activity (organised walks, reduced entrance for sport) and how they can be accessed. Make this information available to employees.

– Review food available at work – are there healthy choices in canteens, snack bars, vending machines etc? If not, improve them. Ask caterers to label food based on fat and sugar content so it’s easier to make healthy choices. Remove sweets from reception, conferences and meetings – possibly substitute with fruit.

– Encourage use of stairs – by turning them into picture galleries of employee art (or their children’s) or posting company notices. Make them more attractive to use.

– Encourage exercise through bike racks and loans to buy bikes. Contact national chains of health clubs and arrange reduced membership rates.

– Provide information to staff, encourage and support their efforts to lose weight (for example, support New Year resolutions through prizes for employees who get together to lose weight).

– Provide pedometers for staff and encourage them to increase their daily steps to at least 10,000 a day.

– Subsidise healthy options in the staff canteen.

– Provide free fruit, one piece a day, for each member of staff

– Provide advice on individualised weight maintenance and loss either at the site or through organisations such as Weight Watchers.

Source: Dr Nerys Williams, consultant occupational physician and honorary consultant in weight management, Birmingham Heartlands
and Solihull NHS Trust


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