How can staff fitness impact absence management?

health and wellbeing

Need to know:

  • Employees who have an active lifestyle are more likely to fend off illnesses and diseases.
  • A health and wellbeing initiative should be targeted at all staff, not just those who are already physically active and engaged with fitness.
  • Investing in employee health can have knock-on effects on productivity, as well as an organisation’s bottom line.

Long-term staff absence remains a prominent challenge within modern workplaces. Legal and General’s Workplace wellbeing report, published in September 2016, found that 17% of employees have been off work for four weeks or more because of an illness, accident or injury over the past 12 months.

Vitality Health’s 2015 Britain’s healthiest workplace report, published in September 2015, contextualises the potential impact of long-term absence on businesses, finding that the annual cost of lost productivity to the UK economy totals £57 billion. The report also highlights that healthier employees have the equivalent of an extra 30 days of productive time available each year.

Staff fitness can therefore form an essential component of a health and wellbeing strategy if an employer is looking to reduce and manage long-term absences within its employee population.

Anna Gudmundson, group chief executive officer at Fitbug, says: “It’s probably the investment that will give the biggest impact to [an organisation’s] bottom line because very often, the workforce is the largest part of the cost base, so even increasing productivity in a minor way will have quite an impact on that most important asset.”

Domino effect

Hannah Campbell, BPS accredited sports psychologist and corporate wellness co-ordinator at HumbleFit, says: “Being fit, you’re training the body to become more resilient to everyday tasks, so active people tend to have more fuel in the tank. They have more stamina after a heavy day of meeting clients and taking on information.”

This increased stamina can be helpful in counteracting employee burnout. Another plus point to physical activity is a stronger immune system, which leads to lower instances of individuals’ succumbing to cold and flu viruses, says Gareth Goffin, park manager at British Military Fitness.

Healthier and fitter employees generally have faster recovery times from illness, reducing absence length. Seemingly minor factors, such as diet and sugar intake, can also impact productivity, due to lower energy levels and digestion issues for example, adds Gudmundson.

Other advantages of higher fitness levels include: a lower risk of contracting illnesses and diseases such as heart disease; improved mental and cognitive functioning; help with weight management; increases in overall wellbeing and mood. Team fitness activities can also boost communication and camaraderie between staff, thereby enhancing employee satisfaction in the workplace.

Strategic approach

Because employees spend such a large portion of their time in the workplace, organisations can have a huge impact on staff fitness levels. “The workplace is an excellent environment for the promotion of health because a large number of people can be reached,” says HumbleFit’s Campbell.

Initiatives that could form part of a health and wellbeing strategy focusing around fitness include voluntary benefits such as bikes-for-work schemes and subsidised gym membership. These can be a useful starting point, which can be bolstered by regular on-site fitness classes. For example, when British Military Fitness works with employers, employees are less likely to phone in sick on the days that classes run, says Goffin.

Weekly on-site exercise classes can also act as a springboard to employees forming their own personal fitness goals, and encourage individuals to take up other physical activities, adds Goffin. This positive behavioural change could have a positive impact in the workplace by generating feelings of motivation and engagement, which can act as a deterrent against absence.

Other ideas organisations could employ include starting running or walking clubs, or offering educational seminars and talks around training and fitness. Practices such as flexible working, which allow staff to go to the gym and to fitness classes at more convenient times, can further support employees’ engagement with their health.

Key considerations

A programme’s target audience is an important consideration when developing a fitness strategy, particularly because many physical activity programmes tend to attract employees who are already engaged with their fitness. Campbell says: “We need to encourage those employees who aren’t already active because they’re the people who are taking the time off work, they’re the people who are more stressed, and they’re the people who are costing the business money.”

To counteract this, organisations could set benchmarks that are not based on absolute performance but instead focus on improving each individual’s own fitness level, says Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer. Employers should also select initiatives that will resonate with their workforce, tailoring these to their likes and dislikes.

Time-sensitive projects, such as themed days and weeks, may be effective in engaging employees in the short term, however, these need to be supported by a continuous strategy that supports long-term changes in fitness behaviours, says Bailey.

“It’s a win-win for everyone if the employee actually changes towards healthier habits and feeling better,” adds Gudmundson.

A health and wellbeing strategy has many benefits for both employers and employees. Encouraging staff to improve or maintain recommended fitness levels can be a way of tackling long-term absence levels and their potential impact on productivity and associated costs, while also having a positive effect on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness.

iris-case-study-pic-1Iris Worldwide uses an on-site personal trainer to encourage physical activity

Marketing and advertising organisation Iris Worldwide launched a physical activity programme five years ago for the 400 staff in its London-based head office, with the aim of energising and motivating employees who were putting in long hours tackling a demanding workload.

Partnering with 9tolife, Iris Worldwide has an on-site personal trainer four afternoons a week, providing a base programme of weekly personal training, circuit, and yoga sessions, as well as sports massage. Over the years, the programme has developed to include an additional holistic emphasis that includes specialist workshops around mindfulness and stress, as well as advice on nutrition. The personal trainer also organises monthly or bi-monthly health checks for employees, which are subsidised by Iris Worldwide.

As a result of these wellbeing interventions, since introducing the programme, Iris Worldwide has experienced 450 fewer sick days in total per annum, equating to a 25% reduction in the average sickness absence levels. Engaging with the programme has also led employees to form their own clubs, such as a football club and a running club.

Claire Humphris, chief marketing officer Europe at Iris Worldwide, says: “What it has created is a positive culture around exercise and time away from your desk. People feel like they’ve been given permission to activate things around exercise at work and during work time. If we want to carry on with the same momentum and dynamism, we need to make sure we’re energising all of our staff.

“The lines between work and life have blurred completely because of how internet-based we all are, so if it’s blurring in one direction where work is spilling over into home life, you have to make it blur back the other way where you can bring more elements of time off or things that benefit [employees’] health in the workplace.”

tom-godwin-resizedViewpoint: Physical activity should become part of an organisation’s culture to boost staff morale

There has been a growing number of organisations in the UK that have physical activity and healthy eating as a core part of their occupational health policy. This involvement by employers in trying to create and promote the importance of healthy living to employees can help improve attendance, performance, and morale. There are a number of ways that employers can seek to help improve how staff access physical activity and get physical activity into an organisation’s culture.

Ideas organisations could employ include having a physical activity champion, who is encouraged to promote health and physical activities, be a useful resource, and act as a clear point of contact. Fitness classes, such as a bootcamp or circuit class, can be done at little cost and, in many cases, staff may opt to self-fund this. These can be run on site if space allows, which will increase the level of access to the service. Local instructors are often keen to be involved in this because it is an opportunity to increase their exposure.

Having an office team in a range of sports can be a fun way of promoting physical activity, and having health promotion events in the office can help to get staff thinking about health and fitness. Local personal trainers and gyms will often be willing to send staff to deliver presentations in exchange for some light marketing to employees.

One of the biggest reasons that is given as to why individuals do not engage in physical activity is a lack of time. Employers have the ability to help employees embed physical activity into their day. This can be done at a relatively low cost and, in some cases, for free. This will then allow organisations to reap the benefits of a healthier, more productive workforce.

Tom Godwin is a personal trainer and independent fitness professional tutor and assessor