Employers have an increasingly important role to play in helping employees become more active. With more than half of adults overweight or obese, it's a change both the country and businesses themselves need.
Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six deaths each year in England alone. Leaving aside that terrible human toll, a report by Public Health England put the annual cost of this to the economy at £7.4bn.
That report, Everybody Active, Every Day, published last September contains many more sobering statistics. More than half of adults and almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese, and 63% of all people aged 15 and over are classed as physically inactive. That compares to 28% in Germany and just 18% in Holland.
But the report, like NHS England’s Five Year Forward View, which was published in October, states clearly that employers have an essential role to play in turning that situation around. This is because many people spend the bulk of their week at work, so finding the time to exercise outside of those hours can be difficult. If people are going to be encouraged to be more active, therefore, their employer needs to find ways to facilitate this.
Employers aren’t being singled out here – the Public Health England strategy says individuals, families, the NHS, all tiers of government and the voluntary sector must all play their part.
It is worth emphasising, however, that there is a clear incentive for employers to do this. Absence through injury or illness brings great costs for employers in terms of sick pay, temporary staffing and lower productivity. Such unnecessary losses would not be tolerated in any other part of the business so it is a continuing surprise that more employers don’t recognise the value of wellbeing programmes. After all, a healthy workforce is a productive one.
What can employers do?
For a start, employers can ensure the culture of their workplace is one where people work their contracted hours, take regular breaks and use all of their annual leave. Over-working can lead to the onset of problems such as back and neck pain.
Our own survey of 2,628 UK residents carried out by Opinium Research in March 2010 suggests that many people are putting themselves at risk. One in four office workers have told us they never took a lunch break, and 46% said their physical pains were due to working in the same position for a long time.
Meanwhile, one in three workers had more than a week left over at the end of their last leave period – and 23% had more than two weeks.
Employers can also support healthy lifestyles by subsidising gym memberships or facilitating lunchtime or after-work exercise classes.
A more direct intervention would be an employer-funded service that provided a combination of preventative measures and fast, effective treatment.
Physiotherapists in these services help create safe workplaces and provide advice and treatment to employees who begin to develop a problem. In many cases, this early intervention prevents any absence from being necessary.
If an employee does go on sick leave, he or she is seen as soon as possible and any underlying behavioural or environmental factors – such as a badly-designed workstation – are dealt with to facilitate a swift return to work. It’s an approach that works for individuals and employers alike.
Royal Mail, for instance, cut sickness absence by 25% over three years with an occupational support and therapy programme. Between 2004 and 2007 the company saw a return of approximately £5 for every £1 invested and 3,600 employees who were absent through injury or illness were brought back into work.
This kind of initiative can be introduced effectively across all sectors and all sizes of organisations. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has studied health and wellbeing initiatives in companies ranging in size from 70 to 100,000-plus employees and has found consistent savings.
The simple truth is that as a nation, a major change is needed. We can no longer continue to be so inactive. Employers are in a prime position to enable people to make the kind of positive, transformational difference that the country and themselves need.
Professor Karen Middleton is the chief executive of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
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