Feature – Helping staff to get healthy

As the nation’s obsession with obesity grows, Jenny Keefe talks up the benefits behind slim and healthy staff

Case study: United Biscuits

Article in full

In recent months as Britons upwrapped their chips, and sank into their sofas to catch a few hours of telly, they must have seen the screaming headlines of our nation’s growing obesity problem – even if this news did not cause them to spring into action. More than one-in-five adults are now obese, according to the latest health survey for England, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research.

Traditionally, employers haven’t got involved, but the workplace could be the new front line in tackling the trend. Dr Geoff Earnshaw, a director at consultancy firm Rood Lane Medical Group, says: "People spend most of their time at work. The way the workplace is set up has a massive impact on people’s health and employers have a duty of care not to make people sick. I suppose the upshot of that is they should make people try and improve their health if they can."

It’s not all about being warm and fuzzy though; the wellbeing of your workforce can have a real impact on your bottom line. Employees in good health are 20% more productive than those in poor health, according the Vielife/IHPM health and productivity study. The research also shows employees with poor fitness levels call in sick twice as often as those with above average health.

Wellness has other repercussions too. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Obese workers are more likely to suffer accidents. An unhealthy workforce can also hit your private medical insurance premiums, because rates are calculated according to the number of claims staff make.

Indeed, in October, Prudential launched a new health policy which directly links the cost of premiums with the efforts people make to take care of themselves. Staff gain vitality points for each measure they take to improve their fitness, including joining a gym or going for health screening.

In the government’s white paper Choosing Health, published last November, an entire chapter is dedicated to work and health. "Workplaces are often under utilised as a setting for health and wellbeing," it says, adding that more employers need to take advantage of initiatives such as tax-efficient bike schemes. According to the paper, the government intends to improve education on diet and nutrition – the workplace could be a good setting in which to achieve this.

Such things are easier said than done. How do you actually convince staff to change the habit of a lifetime and forgo their beloved fry ups? "From an information point of view you can have health days and talk to staff about nutrition," says Earnshaw. But most workplaces need a complete culture overhaul rather than a few perky educational posters. "It’s a slightly cynical point of view. But I think on the whole just telling people to do things because its good for them doesn’t work. Essentially, health promotion models would tell you that you can provide people with information all you like but that doesn’t actually change people’s behaviour. You have to actually restructure the workplace so that people’s behaviour will be changed," he says.

Providing gym facilities or subsidised membership is an excellent start. Yet, while the benefits of exercise are well documented, according to research by wellness consultants Catalyst Health and Fitness, three-quarters of employers do not yet offer staff free or discounted gym membership.

So perhaps, as the old saying goes, we need more fences at the top of the cliff and fewer ambulances at the bottom. James Elder, corporate business consultant at London health club the Third Space, says: "It’s all well and good having safety nets like Bupa or other healthcare programmes for when our employees break down, but by then it may be too late.

"Supporting staff to [help] themselves is by far the best way. Let’s face it, in central London the salaries are quite an investment, and if you are making that kind of investment in somebody then surely their performance needs to be covered."

He adds that if the government offered tax relief on gym membership it would make exercise more affordable. "It’s pretty appalling that I invest in my health and have to pay tax on that, although it means that the government gets the benefit when I don’t spend huge amounts on the NHS when I’m older."

You don’t need the budget of a City investment bank to help employees shed pounds, however. "Good health needs to be integrated as part of your working day," says Frankie Phillips, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. "You don’t have to join a gym to be healthy. Things like encouraging people to use the stairs instead of using the lift really can make a difference."

Phillips recommends providing a fridge for people to keep healthy snacks in; offering a balanced canteen menu; and, at the very least, supplying drinking water. Cost can dictate people’s choices. "Pricing policies need to make sure that healthier options aren’t more expensive than higher fat options. This might encourage people to choose a jacket potato over chips," she adds.

Work canteens have long been the butt of jokes because of their unappetising fare, serving up salty and fat-laden foods. Nowadays, employers are wising up to the need for waist-line friendly food. Mike Smith, director of office caterers Baxter Smith, says: "Organisations are taking lifestyle considerations more seriously. Across the board, people are saying ‘OK, how can we feel better about ourselves?’ The opportunity to eat healthily is part of that programme." He adds that one corporate canteen shifts 900 pots of fruit a day.

As well as the traditional stodge, his menu includes juices, smoothies, salads and decaf skinny lattes. Nevertheless, he says moderation is the key: "While it might be nice for them to have fruit and fibre, and so on, if we put a chicken curry or lasagne on the menu it will be the best seller, and that is a fact. We are not some fascist dictatorship; if you want to choose to eat fish and chips you can."

So, you’ve decided to adopt a healthier work culture. The next step is to convince directors to shell out on wellness programmes. They will want to know how your "namby-pamby yoga classes" are going to have an impact on their balance sheet.

Dr Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at the Manufacturer’s Organisation, says: "There is too much clinical speak in a business environment. Show bosses how it will increase productivity and lower absence rates. Give them some figures, say ‘do this and you will save money’." He advises going armed with statistics on health and productivity. Once schemes are in place, make sure that staff know what’s on the menu, says Neil Snowball, head of wellness exchange at Goldman Sachs. "I think branding for wellness if absolutely crucial. If you package what some firms offer together, it’s actually quite good. Looking at the organisation’s occupational health system and presenting it so staff can see what’s on offer is the way to go."


• Employees in good health are 20% more productive than those in poor health, according the Vielife/IHPMhealth and productivity study.
• The average level of absence per employee in the UK is 9.1 working days. The average cost of absence is now £588 per employee per year, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Employee Absence 2004 survey.
• Obesity accounts for 18 million days’ sickness absence from work, estimates The National Audit Office.
Employee Benefits/HSA healthcare research 2004 shows 17% of employers offer health eating options in staff canteens; 3% offer on-site gym facilities; 22% offer subsidised gym facilities; and 19% offer alternative therapies.

Case study

United Biscuits has introduced a wellbeing programme designed to encourage staff to walk a little further.

Chris Harker, chief occupational physician at United Biscuits, says: "We wanted to encourage a healthy lifestyle so we can reduce obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers."

He adds that he expected the measure to improve productivity and it complements the company’s other occupational services.

"Rather than just joining a gym, which may not be possible, we’re trying to increase everyday exercise… to increase preventative health measures rather than offer a reactive health service," adds Harker.

Some 12,000 staff across the United companies were challenged to walk 10,000 steps a day and have been given a pedometer to monitor progress.