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Health and efficiency: Employers get physical

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Physical exercise

More and more companies regard employee well-being as a key to raising productivity. Steve Roth examines how employers are seeking to create a track record for employee health and fitness.


If your sole idea of exercise at work is a short walk to the coffee machine, you may soon be part of a dying breed. According to a poll carried out by www.reed.co.uk, 88% of workers believe their employers should be providing health and well-being incentives: 81% said that corporate health benefits – such as subsidised gym membership and cycle-to-work schemes – would increase productivity and motivation, and 73% said team sports would improve their relationships with colleagues.

Estimates vary on how many companies provide health and fitness benefits for staff – not enough says reed – but evidence suggests that more and more employers are taking a serious interest in their employees’ health. Figures produced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) as part of its annual absence management survey show a significant rise in the percentage of public sector employers, private services, and manufacturing and production organisations to offer health and well-being programmes.

How to build a successful well-being strategy

  • Build a vision – one the whole organisation can buy into.

  • Do the dirty stuff first – put in place staff policies that work for you. That way everyone knows where you are coming from.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

  • Be flexible. Try different ideas and be ready to think of innovative ways to source initiatives.

  • Make it fun.
  • And what not to do

  • Don’t get put off. It may look difficult but you never know till you try.
  • Of course, encouraging the workforces to hitch up their trousers and play is not a new phenomenon. Philanthropic employers have long promoted the benefits of fresh air, and if there is one thing guaranteed to get the workforce going, it’s sunshine, alcohol, the chance to thwack a ball from here to kingdom come.

    The business case for health

    But the interest in health and fitness at work is no philanthropic whim, says Ben Willmott, employee relations advisor at the CIPD. More and more employers are realising that a lean workforce can be just as valuable as a lean operation. “This is not about philanthropy, this is about the business case. It is about creating healthy workplaces where people are able to and want to work to their full potential,” says Willmott.

    The drive to health and fitness has been driven by purely practical concerns, in particular, absence management. Around 28 million working days a year are lost in the UK to absence: the majority of genuine days sick are caused by back pain, musculo-skeletal injuries and stress. Where organisations have adopted a well-being programme, absence levels have fallen significantly.

    A three-month trial by Marks & Spencer, in which employees experiencing musculo-skeletal problems were referred for physical therapy resulted in an 8% reduction in employee sickness absence. Managers also reported greater moral, improved customer service and improved efficiencies.

    “I have a passionate belief that a healthy body breeds healthy active members of staff,” says Ben Heald, CEO of Sift, an online publisher and consultantcy which runs a variety of fitness initiatives, including subsidised fitness sessions and a cycle-to-work scheme. “They have fewer days off, energy levels are higher, and they are engaged with the business and work.”

    It could also work wonders for your recruitment and retention strategy, says Willmott: “If you can provide benefits and show employees that you care, that can help you in the war for talent.”

    Target your spend

    Fitness doesn’t have to cost the earth either. Schemes on offer include exercise classes on work premises, healthy canteen menus, access to physiotherapy, massages, support to stop smoking, walking group, pedometer schemes, regular health checks and frequent risk assessments.

    “It is all about targeting your spend,” says Alistair Wickens, CEO of Health People Group, which, as roadtohealth, offers a series of programmes based around online or pharmacy-based health checks, interactive membership programmes and an online health coach. “Employees are expecting more from employers in health benefits. They expect employers to take an active part in taking care of their health. Everybody accepts that a healthy workforce is more productive and you get a lower turnover of staff.”

    “Employers shouldn’t try to get into the leisure industry, it is about communicating the message and providing opportunities.”

    Ben Willmott, CIPD

    There are plenty of interventions around well-being that employers can adopt that are low cost, says Willmott. “For example, the pedometer 10,000 step initiative, campaigns around good hydration, and you can use meeting rooms to provide very low cost exercise classes.

    “The overwhelming feedback is that it is welcomed by employees, provided its not being imposed. Employers shouldn’t try to get into the leisure industry, it is about communicating the message and providing opportunities to the extent that the organisation’s resources allow. It is about getting the information out there.”

    Unfortunately, however good a well-being programme, it remains vulnerable to human error. The biggest obstacle to the development of workplace well-being initiatives are failures in management. “The starting point has to be good people management,” says Willmott. “There is no point in providing a subsidised gym if employees dread taking time out because they are going to get harried by their line manager.”

    The best advice is to sew the well-being strategy into the fabric of the organisation. That is exactly the course taken by Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, says HR director Peter Barnard. The organisation offers private healthcare, subsidised gym membership, on-site physiotherapy, health checks, healthy menus and cut price fruit. Such has been the success that days lost to sickness halved between 2001 and 2004 and continues to fall; teaching performance is up; and employees are full of praise for their employer.

    The organisation takes a softly, softly approach to engagement: employees are given maximum information and it is made as easy as possible for them to take up the opportunities. Managers lead by example and staff are encouraged to show leadership by helping others. “If you try to take people to the cliff wall it doesn’t work,” says Barnard. “You have to do it in a gradual fashion. If it doesn’t work the first time, you build on it. First, we communicate and educate people. If you haven’t been in the gym before, it can be an intimidating environment. Having a buddy to go with is really important.

    “We believe passionately that we need to keep people fit at work. It is a blended approach that includes physiotherapy, occupational health, health and safety, and personnel. If things don’t work we ditch them; if they do work it becomes part of the way we operate.”

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