Helping staff strike the right work-life balance can also set up your workplace for a long and healthy future. By Leon Gettler
In an age when more companies recognise that only a healthy, qualiﬁed and motivated workforce can achieve future success in a globalising marketplace, a healthy ofﬁce environment becomes a competitive advantage.
Managers have to know when their office needs a health makeover. The signs might be obvious. A Stress and Wellbeing survey released by the Australian Psychological Society in November revealed 75 per cent of Australian workers believed stress was negatively impacting their physical health, while 68 per cent reported stress affected their mental health.
Another problem is that sitting is now regarded as the new smoking. A study, published in 2012 in the journal Circulation, looked at 8800 Australians over several years and found those who sat and watched more television were associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death, and suggested chronic disease prevention strategies could focus on reducing sitting time.
Excessive sitting, set at nine hours a day, was said to be a lethal activity. It’s a warning for white-collar workers, and it’s having an impact on the bottom line. Absenteeism, much of which is due to health and stress issues, is estimated to cost the economy $28 billion in lost wages and productivity each year.
This is why health in the workplace has become an issue. So much so that the Luxembourg Declaration on Health Promotion of 1997, which came out of the World Health Organisation, proclaims traditional occupation health and safety alone cannot address the issues arising, such as overwork and sleep deprivation, and what’s needed instead is a strategy to prevent ill-health at work (including work-related diseases, accidents, injuries and stress) and enhance health-promoting potential and well-being in the workforce.
Ken Buckley, chief executive of workplace health and fitness group Healthworks, says the key challenge for companies is making a business case for the health makeover.
“What drives a business is dollars, and there needs to be a business case,” Buckley says. “The makeover has to be driven by the fact that it’s impacting on productivity, performance and morale, and the evidence is that if you put these programs in, it does have an effect.”
A lot of it is not only driven by the bottom line. Many companies are now realising it’s a way of attracting young talent.
“The younger generation coming through is not prepared to work 50 to 60 hours a week,” Buckley says. “They want some kind of balance where their health and well-being is taken into account and where they do offer those kinds of programs.”
Management plays a crucial role, he says: “If you have a toxic workplace, you can have the best wellness program in the world, but if people are expected to come in and work unrealistic hours and achieve unrealistic goals, that will have an impact on mental health.
“We will tell a company we will help with the wellness program, but they also have to look at the culture. You can’t put a wellness program into a toxic culture or a culture that doesn’t support this kind of thing. It needs to be supported by management, not just dollars-wise, but also participation.
They also need to look at cafeterias and food; they need to look at the hours people are working.” Much of it, Buckley says, comes down to changing people’s behaviour. “What we want to do is encourage people to take small steps to change behaviour, even if it’s as simple as getting up and walking every day or having a couple of pieces of fruit every day, or balancing their lifestyles and having less stress.
“You can’t change people overnight. We look at it one step at a time. If we can help people to make one or two changes to get better sleep, if we can help people get up and start walking or do some sort of exercise, you get 20 per cent of the work site to do that and you will start to change the work site, you will start to change behaviour and you will start to see an impact when you do a health risk appraisal at the end of year one to see if any kind of changes have happened.
“Do that over a two or three-year period and you’ll start to see changes.”
The Heart Foundation offers several different strategies, depending on how much a business wants to spend. Low-resource measures include flexible work hours, supporting physical activity breaks during the work day where people are encouraged to go out for a walk, mapping and promoting walk routes close to the workplace, starting a lunchtime walking group, posting signs at the lifts encouraging people to use stairs, providing bike racks and liaising with local fitness centres to get people discount memberships.
Medium resource activities include setting up a pedometer loan scheme, encouraging employees to enter fun runs and sporting events as workplace teams, providing shower and changing facilities in the workplace, sending out a physical activity questionnaire to determine employees’ interest in options, organising health-related classes and guest speakers, providing weather protection gear at reception – such as umbrellas, jackets and sunscreen – to allow employees to walk to local meetings, and establishing partnerships with local bike shops to provide corporate rates to employees.
High-resource activities include subsidising gym memberships, providing onsite fitness classes, equipping employees with pedometers, setting up a gym or exercise facility, bringing in an exercise physiologist to perform simple fitness tests or exercise specialists to give regular motivational fitness talks onsite, having a fitness instructor lead employee walking, jogging and running groups, and providing a bike fleet for employees to attend local meetings.
Other methods might include promoting frequent breaks. Everyone has a different work style. That said, all employees should be encouraged to take regular breaks. A break from work helps people decompress and handle the endless stream of tasks that keep rolling in.
Employees might take to a basketball court across the street; go out for a jog or a quick walk around the block. Stepping away from a difficult problem or project for a moment can clear the mind and allow the employee to refocus.
Some companies allow pets in the office. A Virginia Commonwealth University study found employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels throughout the work day, reported higher levels of job satisfaction, and had a more positive perception of their employer.
The study was carried out at a dinnerware company in North Carolina. Seventy-six of the company’s employees participated in the study. They were divided into three groups: 18 dog owners who brought their dogs to the office each day, 38 employees who owned dogs but did not bring them to the office, and 19 employees who didn’t own pets.
Using a saliva sample to determine baseline levels of cortisol – a hormone that measures a person’s stress – the researchers found significant differences between the stress levels of those with and without dogs by their side. Workers accompanied by their dogs reported the lowest amount of stress at all points in the workday. The most stressed-out group turned out to be dog owners who left their pets at home.
Companies can also consider cutting back on long hours, or introducing more flexible working times, increasing ventilation (because air quality has a big impact on concentration, disposition and overall health), running stress management classes or investing in ergonomic chairs.
Other solutions include having healthy food alternatives in the canteen and keeping morale high.
Does your company need a health makeover? As Buckley says, companies should check the bottom line to see if absenteeism, productivity levels and stress are affecting it; and quite apart from that, it’s become a talent management tool.
This article appeared in the July 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.