Director’s Toolbox: getting your workforce moving

Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Winter 2018/19
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Director’s Toolbox: getting your workforce moving

As Suffolk strives to become the most active county in England, employers are increasingly recognising the benefits of having a physically active and healthy workforce.

Evidence shows that physical activity not only improves the health of employees, it improves the health of businesses as well. Whether it’s reducing absenteeism, improving productivity and staff satisfaction, or aiding recruitment and retention, physical activity has an important part to play.

What’s more, because the ways of encouraging staff to be more active are so diverse, you don’t have to be a large employer to promote physical activity at work. Any business of any size in any sector can get in on the act.

But why is having a physically active workforce good for your business?

We spend approximately 60 percent of our waking hours in the workplace, and that doesn’t include the time taken travelling to and from work. Add to this the prevalence of the ‘having to be at your desk’ culture and it’s easy to see why we’re failing to meet recommended levels of moderate exercise – just 150 minutes a week.

Indeed, around 25 percent of adults are active for less than 30 minutes a week. That’s equivalent to over 161,000 people in Suffolk. A further 80,000 are not active enough to maintain good health.

Research by the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health shows that time is the biggest barrier to physical activity. It seems that many of us are so busy working hard, putting in long hours that we simply don’t have enough hours in the day to exercise. Even more so in the winter months when we are faced with shorter days.

Even for those who do manage to exercise outside of working hours, they may find that their work is completely sedentary, which is also bad for their health.

This level of inactivity is having a serious impact on both the individual and the economy. Research undertaken by Public Health England indicates that rising levels of physical inactivity coupled with an ageing population is increasing the prevalence of Musculoskeletal (MSK) problems. The pain and disability caused by MSK was the second most common cause of sickness absence from work in 2016, with over 30.8 million working days lost. This affects workplace productivity and costs the UK economy around £7bn a year.

A further 11.5 percent of sickness absences were related to mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and other serious conditions) resulting in 15.8 million days lost annually.

Worryingly, Suffolk has the highest proportion of days lost to sickness in the East of England. According to the Labour Force Survey (2014-16), 1.8 percent of working days were lost to sickness; a staggering 64 percent higher than the national average. Based on the level of employment in Suffolk, this suggests that around 1.3 million days in Suffolk may be lost to sickness each year.  

So how does physical activity have a benefit on reducing absenteeism?

Simply put, when employees are active, they feel better.

Regular physical activity has a positive impact on depression and anxiety; it can relieve stress, improve memory and helps aid sleep. Immediately after exercise, the brain is better at accomplishing tasks and resisting distractions. Even in small amounts, physical exercise can improve self-confidence and self-esteem which in turn gives us greater inner strength to approach difficult situations in work environments. It also reduces the risk of developing long-term conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Relationships between co-workers improve and staff satisfaction increases with physical activity. The outcome of this is reduced sickness absence rates and reduced staff turnover. Furthermore, productivity increases and staff recruitment and retention are enhanced.

So, all the evidence indicates that investing in employee physical activity can make a big difference to your company and to your team.

So, how do you go about developing a more active workplace?

It’s recommended that employers focus on three areas:

1. Travelling to work: Promote walking and cycling to work. Sustrans (www.sustrans.org.uk), a charity dedicated to making it easy for people to cycle and walk, has helpfully developed a list of great ideas and actions that you can use to change your workplace’s approach to cycling, walking and public transport. Some of them are quick and easy to implement.  Also, initiatives such as the government’s cycle to work scheme (www.cyclescheme.co.uk) enables employees to get bikes and accessories tax-free, saving on average 25-39 percent on a new bike for work. It’s free to join and easy to apply for online.

2. Activity at work: Once at work, too many of us come into the office and park ourselves at our desk for the day. Although a power walk at lunch will clear your head, just as important are the small movements that you make throughout the day, like taking the stairs instead of the lift, standing to answer the telephone and doing regular stretching exercises at your workstation. None of this is rocket science; we all know instinctively that physical activity is good for us. However, whilst we may know that it is the right thing to do, most of us don’t do it or we forget. Another thing you can do as an employer is to provide information about local walking routes and encourage staff to take short walks during work breaks. The Daily Mile Fit for Life Initiative (www.thedailymilefitforlife.com) has been inspired by the success of the highly-acclaimed children’s health and wellbeing scheme. It encourages workplaces, amongst other settings, to take up The Daily Mile and incorporate 15 minutes of self-paced physical activity (walking, jogging or running) into daily life.

3. Tailoring activities to fit the business and its employees: Introduce new procedures and ways of working that will encourage staff to get more active. Use posters and messages to remind staff to get up and move. Encourage them to get up and go and speak to colleagues on the other side of the office rather than using email or the phone and try out walking or standing meetings. Improving workplace design can also be a powerful way of increasing physical activity. Creating accessible walkways will allow employees to move around the office when they take breaks from their desks. Likewise, centralising bins and photocopiers will encourage people to get up from their workstations. You could also introduce standing desks as an alternative to the conventional workstation.

The key is letting staff know they are supported in being active at work.

The ‘Improving Workplace Health’ pages on the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce website (www.suffolkchamber.co.uk) provides information about improving staff mental and physical health and wellbeing, including information on the evidenced-based ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ framework which supports positive mental health and emotional wellbeing. There are also loads of fantastic ideas about how this initiative can be integrated into our daily lives at www.healthysuffolk.org.uk/projects/5-ways-to-wellbeing

Another useful source of information about physical activity, health walks, weight management and health checks is OneLife Suffolk (www.onelifesuffolk.co.uk).

Finally, Public Health England’s OneYou website (www.nhs.uk/oneyou) provides information on easy ways to move more.

So, with companies facing unprecedented pressures to perform in the wake of the global economic downturn the business case for supporting employees to be physically active is compelling. Those that commit to activate their staff stand to reap the rewards from a fitter, healthier and happier workforce.

Adam Baker is Strategic Lead for Physical Activity at Suffolk County Council E: adam.baker@suffolk.gov.uk T: 01473 260821 or visit mostactivecounty.com

Photo Credit: Sport England

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