For February’s health focus, Sussex Business Times investigates whether or not employees maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the responsibility of the employer, and takes a look at the different initiatives businesses can introduce as a means of improving overall health and wellbeing in the workplace

As we have mentioned in previous issues of SBT, juggling a strong work life balance can prove to be very difficult. Throw in the pressures of trying to stay fit and healthy and you’ll often find that you’ve got yourself a bit of a situation. Of course, those who have active jobs or jobs that are based within close proximity to their homes are more likely to have an easier time with sticking to a healthy lifestyle with the ability to incorporate exercise into their daily lives. For those who have office jobs, this can be very difficult to maintain, however there are a number of things that both employers and employees can do to ensure steps toward a healthy and productive workforce.

Of course, we could go into all of the dietary and physical requirements needed to sustain a balanced food and exercise regime in day-to-day life, but understanding which food types are good for you and which ones are harmful doesn’t take much besides common sense. The more obvious problem surrounds what businesses could be doing to ensure their employees are leading this kind of lifestyle. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be pretty self-explanatory and doesn’t take much besides common knowledge, but a healthy life doesn’t just relate to physical means, and mental health is also an incredibly important factor. There’s no escaping the fact that mental health is a serious problem for businesses and the economy. All too often, employers are first made aware there is a problem when an employee takes time off work, which can have a huge impact, both financially to the business and the pressure put on the remaining employees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the total cost to employers of mental health problems, among their staff, was estimated at nearly £70 billion each year back in 2015. This is equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce. They also report that stress accounts for 40 per cent of all work related illnesses. The Mental Health Foundation predicts that by 2030, even if rates of prevalence stay the same as they are now, there will be approximately 2 million more adults in the UK with mental health problems than today, due to population growth, meaning the problems this causes for businesses will be far more extreme.

So what can businesses do to ensure their staff members are happy and content at the workplace? In December we took a look at the benefits of a shorter working week, and this is something employers really should bare in mind. Spending a little more time away from work has proven to be the cause of increase productivity in the workplace, at the same time allows employers more time to kick back and relax at home, so it really is a win-win situation. For a large amount of people, a long commute to work in the morning often means breakfast is skipped, and so another suggestion could be that the working day starts an hour later. Lunch breaks are equally as important, and while the majority of businesses supply their employees with an hour’s break per day, many staff members will work through this because of a heavy workload. Therefore, business leaders/owners could provide employees with a more manageable workload and be more persistent in making sure staff members take their lunch hour.

The question of whose responsibility it is to ensure employees lead a healthy lifestyle during working hours is one that carries debate, and a large amount of UK workers believe that it is the duty of employers to ensure their employees are well looked-after during working hours with regards to the food available and/or cooking appliances, accessibility to exercise and sensible breaks. Tesco recently introduced this initiative, inviting employees from the brand’s 2,600 UK stores to pledge to improve their fitness, diet and sleep quality and, despite the fact that many workers find employers and the workplace unhelpful in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, this initiative has been met with staff skepticism.

Tesco’s launch of this wellbeing initiative came alongside UK health hitting headlines when Prime Minister, Theresa May announced plans to increase support and resources for employees suffering from mental ill health, which currently accounts for more than 20% of NHS activity. This costs the British economy approximately £15 billion per year in lost productivity and is now the leading cause of long-term sickness in the country.

As a part of their strategy, retail giant, Tesco offered its staff free fruit and vegetables and free health check-ups from Nuffield Health, as well as mental health advice throughout January as a part of its ‘colleague health month.’ Not only was this a beneficial practice for Tesco employees, but charity too, as Tesco donated £1 for every employee who took the voluntary pledge to take part. Although, for the third largest retailer in the world (in terms of profits), £1 might not seem like such a generous donation, the consideration that there are more than 470,000 employees across the country makes up for it.

Getting back to the brand’s ‘colleague health month’, what would be expected to be a successful and appreciated scheme has seen reactions that haven’t been entirely positive. On an unofficial online forum for Tesco staff, Very Little Helps, one employee stated that the pledge made them feel like a child, being “treated like three-year-olds and being given an apple a day,” while another staff member commented: “They are oblivious to the extent Tesco causes ill-health, especially stress and, of course, stress can lead to smoking, drinking and comfort eating,” suggesting that, for a number of their employees, Tesco is often the cause of an unhealthy lifestyle. Of course, if this is the case, then you can’t knock the monster company for attempting to improve upon this, even if it doesn’t quite make up for it in the eyes of the employees.

A spokesperson for Tesco has said: “We want to help all colleagues live healthier lives. The initiative will help highlight the little steps we can all take to improve health, focused around what we eat and drink, and keeping fit and dealing with our busy day-to-day lives,” while Managing Director at Bluecrest Wellness – one of the country’s best health screening services – Peter Blencowe said that, although Tesco’s intentions were commendable, the feedback from employees demonstrates the importance of getting the right communications strategy in place: “While it’s true that there is a link between effective employee healthcare and productivity, supporting staff who wish to improve their health is something a company needs to do because it is a responsible employer, and staff communications need to reflect that.”

While running the risk that introducing a health and wellbeing scheme in January, straight after the Christmas rush, could be seen by employees as too much of an easy solution for health issues, Peter went on to commend Tesco’s scheme, claiming that any time of the year is a good time to start a wellbeing initiative, as many people start the new year with resolutions to become healthier. He said: “Organisations need to have a commitment to ongoing health, and any programmes need to continue throughout the year.”

Although Tesco’s wellbeing initiative has urged mixed reactions and responses, other businesses have introduced similar strategies to ensure a healthier and therefore, happier workforce. Co-founder of online furniture store, Swoon Editions, Debbie Williamson introduced ‘Swoon Sweater’ to her employees – a free weekly fitness session in a nearby park after work where employees are driller by a personal trainer with resistance exercises such as push-ups and squats, as well as cardio, including sprints and step aerobics. She claims that, for a small business like hers, 23 days equates to 10% of the working year: “If we didn’t create an environment in which our employees prioritise their wellbeing and look our for each other during busy times, we would need to compensate by increasing our workforce, with no added value for the customer.”

Debbie’s fitness drive has proven to be a huge success, with most of the firm’s 58 employees getting involved on a regular basis. Alongside this, the company’s employee’s are all offered free gym membership and, although this is a substantial commitment from such a small company, it has shown itself to be beneficial in the long run. “It offers the team opportunities to mix outside the workplace and this contributes significantly to morale. I would recommend other businesses consider a similar initiative.”

These are all elements that Sussex businesses should consider as steps to take towards forming a happy, healthy and therefore more productive workforce. Although companies might have to pay out to incorporate such initiatives, they could be extremely beneficial for business in the long run and, therefore worthwhile

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