Should your employer help you to get fit
Thursday 10 August 2017

The Chief Executive of Public Health England has publicly backed employers that put in place schemes to help staff improve their health and fitness. What are the most effective schemes available and do they go far enough?  

Reducing sick days

Yoga classes during your lunch break, standing desks, walking meetings, running clubs after work. Employers over the last few years have introduced many different schemes aimed at improving their employees’ health and fitness.

The aim is to make their staff healthier and therefore less likely to take time off work sick, and to improve productivity, as well as being viewed as an attractive employer to work for.

Custom-made approach

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, has recently said that Britain’s small and medium-sized businesses could do more to help their staff improve their health, pointing out that staff spend upwards of 30 hours a week at work and that it is a ‘unique opportunity’ to use some of that time to care for their health.

The traditional offer that employers make is gym membership. However, the typical take-up of corporate gym membership is only 6%, and it is thought that subsidising gym membership is only going to appeal to those who already have an interest in keeping fit.

Employers are recognising this now and are offering more imaginative ways to encourage staff to look after their health. For example, group posture exercises for people who have to stay in the same position for a long time because of their job, or podiatry services for staff who are on their feet all day, or posture assessments to identify back problems.

This custom-made approach to staff health and fitness could be more effective than the more traditional health and wellbeing schemes.

A healthy environment

There is also a lot to be gained from making the workplace itself a healthy environment. Aside from offering fruit and water in the office, Selbie has suggested that employers “create dynamic environments where people can be more active, move more and change positions, with things like standing desks”.

Walking meetings, whereby colleagues take walks around a local park or just around the block while discussing what they need to, can be productive and support better health.

The fit commuter

Making fitness part of getting to work and back is very convenient for a lot of people, and employers agree it’s a positive move. A survey by HR Magazine found that 33% of employers believe those who cycle to work are more productive than those who don’t.

And for those who do cycle to work, there are major health advantages. A study found that cycling to work can drastically cut your chances of getting cancer and heart disease, and another study found that regular cycling cuts the risk of death from any cause by 41%.

No wonder firms are encouraging cycle commuters (who at the moment only represent 3% of the UK population, whereas those who commute by car make up 36%), with cycle-to-work schemes, and providing showers and secure bike parking.

Mental wellbeing at work

There is also now more of a focus on mental health, rather than just physical health, with employers recognising that mental ill health has just as much of an impact on sick leave and lack of productivity as physical ill health.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors recently found that the number of people suffering from mental health problems at work has risen from a quarter to a third over the past five years.

Some employers are responding to this, offering holistic wellness programmes, mental health toolkits, mindfulness programmes and resilience training.

Tailor solutions to staff

Everyone has different ways in which they like to stay fit and healthy, and employers have to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all. Seemingly smaller initiatives may be more effective than large schemes such as gym membership.

Employers need to look at what staff want and tailor their offer to that. As Selbie said, employers should put in place “ideas that employees want, rather than things that are nice to have”.


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