You are what you eat

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign to revamp school dinners has raised the profile of the important role nutrition has in combating poor health. But it is not just schools that need to focus on the effects a poor diet can have on fitness and productivity. With rising obesity levels among the UK workforce, employers owe it to themselves and their staff to encourage healthy eating at work.

The UK is the second most obese nation in the developed world. And, according to disability insurer UnumProvident, that obesity costs the UK economy an estimated 2bn through sickness absence.

Poor nutritional balance alone correlates to an 8% reduction in productivity and people with bad diets are absent 15% more than those with good diets, according to research carried out with the Harvard Medical School by Vielife, an international company which provides employee health and well-being programmes.

So what can HR do to reduce the risk of absence and help raise fitness levels among staff? There are a number of simple and cost-effective ways to help encourage a healthier workforce, without access to occupational health specialists or an expensive health scheme.

“HR can introduce some basic measures that don’t cost anything,” says Clive Pinder, managing director of Vielife. “Making sure plates of fruit are served at meetings instead of pastries is a good start. A canteen review so that there are lots of protein dishes, so staff don’t feel a ‘carb low’ mid-afternoon makes sure productivity doesn’t flag. Revise menus and make sure that salads are cheaper than chips.

“Put signs in lifts, suggesting people take the stairs and paint your stairwells so they look more appealing. Little things make big differences,” he says.

Traditional low-cost employee benefits, such as luncheon vouchers, could also help. Accor Services, for example, is soon to launch a ‘healthy meal voucher’. “The new scheme is aimed at employers that are looking to address problems with absenteeism caused by an obese or unhealthy workforce,” explains Ben Turner, luncheon voucher manager at Accor.

“We are mailing luncheon voucher clients and finding out their views on developing a healthy meal voucher. Managers are getting more concerned about healthy eating because of the number of days lost due to obesity-related illness.”

The model Accor is working towards will mean staff have to use the voucher to redeem healthy option meals at the usual outlets instead of fat-laden sandwiches and confectionery. However, it is not just food that you need to consider when improving the diet of employees. Maintaining good hydration is also important to your overall health and productivity.

Drink a litre and a half a day
One rather unusual technique Vielife uses to make sure staff are drinking enough water is by providing a ‘pee chart’, which is displayed in toilets. It tells you what colour your urine should be.

“You should drink 1.5litres of water a day. We know that a 1% decrease in hydration levels produces a 20% decrease in production levels. If you’re dehydrated, you won’t perform well,” says Pinder.

Diet is only half the battle. The other hurdle is exercise. Most office jobs are sedentary, so excess calories are simply not burned off. UnumProvident reports that an office employee would have to sit at their computer for 49 hours to burn off one confectionery bar and more than 30 hours for a packet of crisps.

Discounted gym membership can have a positive effect, but employers are slow to catch on. According to wellness consultants Catalyst Health and Fitness, 75% of employers do not offer free or discounted gym membership to staff.

One simple way to encourage more exercise at work is to make workers walk further. Cadbury Schweppes, for example, has introduced walking areas for meetings, so people don’t have to sit around a table and can meet on the move.

The Broadgate Centre in the City of London has also been redesigned with fitness in mind. Architects have designed office buildings so that meeting rooms, canteens and car parks are more spread out. This means workers expend more energy during the day.

This is an issue the government is trying to address in its Choosing Health White Paper, published last year. It says increasing physical activity at work is key to promoting health in the workplace.

It highlights, for example, that tax rules allow employers to help staff through tax-efficient bicycle purchases from salary, to encourage more employees to cycle to work. But concessions to such schemes are currently low because people are not aware of them. The Department of Transport is planning to work with the cycle industry to produce more guidance on the scheme to help increase uptake.

According to the White Paper, a large proportion of the population spends more than a third of its waking hours at work. So employers can play a vital role in improving the nation’s health. “If the workplace enables and supports health, employees are more likely to make healthier choices. For many people, the work environment constrains the choices available and makes it difficult to choose health,” the White Paper reports.

Turner argues that the government does not offer enough incentives to encourage employers to provide support to enable staff to adopt a healthier lifestyle. More tax benefits would go a long way in tackling the obesity epidemic, he says.

“Employers would be more willing to implement support schemes, such as our healthy meal voucher, if they had tax exemptions. There is a genuine need to look at nutrition when you see the number of days lost to ill health due to obesity. It is also well known that productivity reduces after lunch because of the kind of food being eaten. If we can get away from the unhealthy snack culture, it has to help,” he says.

Among other conditions, bad nutrition can lead to serious problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, which can lead to lengthy absences. With NHS waiting lists still high, providing private medical insurance for employees has obvious benefits in helping staff who suffer from serious illness back to work quickly.

Prevention is better than cure
However, for many companies group schemes for the whole workforce are simply unaffordable. Based on the concept that prevention is better than cure, there are a number of companies emerging that aim to catch symptoms before they become serious. These programmes are much cheaper than traditional private medical insurance and often include access to services such as occupational health advice, health screenings and gym membership.

One such provider, Roadtohealth, claims managed health and well-being programmes have been shown to reduce absence by 9.3%, increase productivity by 8% and reduce staff turnover by 25%.

Alistair Wickens, group managing director and chief executive of The Health People Group, the parent company of Roadtohealth, says obesity-related illness can cost employers thousands of pounds per employee every year in the UK. “Employers need to understand that they can do something about this. Some obesity is down to genetics, but for many it is down to lifestyle. A weight loss of just 5-10% can reduce associated health risks.”

Wickens says that, although awareness of the dangers of obesity in the UK is generally good, people often need a more personal approach to help them to lose weight. Having a health screen, where your specific risks are spelled out, including cholesterol levels and body mass index, can, he says, motivate staff to take action. “They need to be given their individual risks so they can take responsibility for their own health,” he says.

The growing number of insurers using well-being services to reduce risk in group private medical insurance schemes backs the value of such programmes. More insurers now work with companies such as Roadtohealth to offer preventive benefits to reduce the number of people claiming on schemes, thus reducing overall cost.

One insurer that has taken this concept one step further is PruHealth. It launched a new private medical insurance scheme in October last year that actively reduces premiums on its group scheme, Vitality, if staff take steps to improve their fitness. Policy holders earn ‘Vitality points’ for actions, such as managing their weight, going for screenings and giving up smoking. “It benefits employees, as they are encouraged to improve their health and it benefits employers as they receive discounts as the workforce gets fitter,” says Prudential spokesman, Paul Keeble.

According to Pinder, large organisations can introduce adequate health and well-being measures for less than 50 per employee each year. For smaller companies the economies of scale are not so great, so it costs more like 100 per employee. However it can give good returns.

In a study by Vielife, supported by the Institute for Health and Productivity Management, those receiving its health promotion programme reduced average monthly absence by 5.9 hours per person and improved monthly productivity by an average of 3.2 hours. And, says Pinder, making sure staff have a healthy diet is key to the success of its scheme.

The company collected data from 12,000 workers in the public and private sectors and found that 60% had sub-optimal nutrition scores. “People don’t have a balanced diet,” says Pinder. “But why should businesses care? Because figures show that bad nutrition has a direct impact on productivity and absence.

“It amazes me that every chief executive says people are [a company’s] most important asset, but when asked if they are concerned with the fuel that they use, they will look confused. If you asked them what fuel their machinery used it would be a different matter – they would make sure it was the highest quality to maximize efficiency. The same should apply to the workforce,” says Pinder.

Five simple ways to improve health

  • Revise the canteen menu and make healthier options cheaper. Ensure protein dishes are available to avoid energy slumps in the afternoon
  • Make sure that water is readily available so staff stay hydrated throughout the day
  • Put signs in the lifts to encourage people to take the stairs
  • Provide health screenings to alert staff to problems associated with their diet and exercise regime
  • Consider the benefits of low-cost initiatives such as discounted gym membership and access to occupational health advice lines

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