Online health programmes in the workplace

For a growing number of organisations online well­being programmes are proving a cost-effective way of getting the healthy living message across to staff. But despite increasing levels of obesity and alcohol consumption hitting the headlines, winning staff over can be a challenge.


By offering employees advice and support about healthy living, which they can access via the company intranet or online, HR teams can make wellbeing seem more fun – and avoid looking like killjoys.


And selling the idea of online health promotion should be easier now that there is a government initiative pushing the message that a healthier workforce will be more productive.


This month sees the launch of a new strategy to encourage employers to use the workplace to promote healthy lifestyles – part of the government’s ‘Health Work and Well Being – Caring for our Future’ strategy launched in 2005.


Pitfalls


One of the potential pitfalls of promoting wellbeing is that employers can seem too intrusive. If employees want to eat chips and drink too much caffeine, they may feel nannied by an HR initiative that appears to admonish them for their wicked ways. And not all HR staff are happy donning a tracksuit or power walking at lunchtime and exhorting colleagues to follow suit.


Online health promotion, however, leaves staff to make their own choices. And far from looking dull and stodgy, an online health promotion can seem cutting-edge and is likely to appeal to an increasingly internet-savvy workforce.


Social networking site Bebo, for example, has launched a new online platform, Be Well, for 12 million users, which provides its community with a central source of information and advice on issues relating to mental health and wellbeing.


There is certainly plenty of choice: UK suppliers include Vielife, Fitbug, HealthCV.com, Employee Well Being Solutions and Aegon UK. So HR professionals need to study the market, and look at relevant case studies to see which package is right for their organisation.


Organisations signed up with Fitbug include O2, Ford, Channel Four, Knowsley Council and PruHealth. All employees using the Fitbug technology get a personal healthcheck, a fitness schedule, with targets and healthy eating plans, and access to a range of articles, recipes and workout plans.


Vielife offers a similar range of online services, and last summer launched a ‘Positive Health’ tool in conjunction with Bupa UK. This includes online assessments covering nutrition, fitness, sleep and stress, all known to affect performance. It also offers information and advice on work-related and general health issues.


Respect


Such an approach respects the autonomy of staff. “Organisations are made up of all kinds of people – some of whom are likely to be very private and introverted, and reluctant to join anything that seems like a club,” says Diana Nye, commercial director of Vielife.


Equally, men and women have different attitudes to fitness, with men more likely to feel embarrassed to be seen counting calories or nipping to the gym. For them, the advantage of online health promotion is that no-one needs to know what they are up to. For those who prefer group dieting or jogging, the option to team up with colleagues is still there.


An online package won’t do the whole job for you, however. If there are issues connected with stress or poor management, there will be low levels of wellbeing, and higher levels of absenteeism. But a system like this can give HR and line managers an overview of the pressure points in the organisation.


“Although it is confidential, an online system will record how people are using it, what staff are signing up for, and where the risk factors are,” Nye says. For example, if staff fill in a nutrition questionnaire, the employer will know how many have poor diets, or a lack of knowledge about healthy eating.


“All too often, employers bring in a reiki practitioner or anti-smoking adviser, but don’t actually know how relevant this is to their staff,” says Nye. “This way, you will know exactly where the problems in your organisation lie.”

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