Fit for Work

As the national obesity crisis worsens and a regular flow of statistics inform us that we’re a nation in trouble, with no demographic escaping the threat, we seem to have become obsessed with how fit or unfit we are. This is reflected in our growing interest in how many calories we consume and how much exercise we manage – right down to how many steps we take a day. No surprise then that this interest has started to manifest itself in the workplace…

Last year, research carried out by The Workforce Institute at Kronos revealed that almost 75 per cent of workers (a total of 9,000 were questioned) believe that wearable technology, designed to capture vast amounts of biometric data and manage health risks, could lead to increased efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

Measuring levels of physical activity is but a small part of the obsession with health and wellbeing which has infiltrated the workplace overall. There is also physical evidence, from the desks that we sit at to issues of bicycle storage and showering facilities, that we are mindful of our health.

In fact, in the last 12 months, bicycle storage has shot up the wish list for those moving offices or having a fit out. Once a green issue, in the same bag as car sharing and taking public transport, cycling to work is now part of the changing office environment, which has standing stations as part of the norm, along with shower rooms to accommodate those who cycle to work or exercise on their breaks.

Storage for bikes reflects a single craze in itself as more than two million people across the UK now cycle at least once a week. The BBC News referred to cycling as the new golf, earlier this year, as it is a sport that is now over-taking a round on an 18 hole course as the activity of choice.

Of course, it still ticks the green box – cycling to work provides the perfect and most probable antidote to our over-polluted, congested roads – but it also encompasses so much more. With workers now opting to take part in charity bike rides, along with half marathons and tough mudders, cycling is very much on trend when it comes to teaming together to support good causes at work.

In fact physical charitable activities are generally on the increase in the working environment, with a growing number of workers opting to take part. Not only can these activities contribute to team building, they also impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of the employees, which is a boon for all concerned – including the charities, the employers and the participants.

Fitness has certainly travelled up the collective agenda, so no surprises to find that some employers are looking for office accommodation close to gyms and fitness centres – or even in the same building. This, again, demonstrates how much the stakes have risen when it comes to employee wellbeing.

This recent focus on wellbeing is down, in part, to the always ‘on’, constant connectivity approach that many of us take to our working lives. This approach has amplified the challenges and responsibilities faced by our managers. Mental and physical, the resilience of each worker is now a management concern that, in some cases, requires a budget attachment to ensure that the team’s needs are adequately met.

And, to be done properly, it requires a holistic approach. Taking care of the wellbeing of the workforce means to keep an eye on the physical, as well as the mental and what makes the workers happy. If a team’s physical needs are met, they are far more likely to be happy in their working environment anyway.

Most employees are already onside with this. As the wearable technology fad has proven, there is an appetite for healthier living at the moment and a lot of workers are prepared to invest in this themselves. And so, as companies continue to invest, it would seem that we are reaching a coming together of sorts: a general collusion between workers and employers to promote a healthier working environment.

As for nutrition (another part of that bigger picture), no boss is going to overstep the mark and dole out advice regarding diet in the workplace – although there are now many ‘healthy’ vending machines to provide better options for food ‘on the go’. Food is still very much the domain of the individual. The focus is very much on fitness not fatness and, going back to the frequent media reports, there are very simple reasons why…

There has long been evidence of a direct correlation between being active and enjoying a longer, as well as a fitter, life. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has previously published guidance for company bosses to encourage a less sedentary approach in the workplace and to get employees to stand during meetings, with a view to boosting regular activity levels.

Earlier last year, it was suggested in the media that office workers should spend a minimum of two hours on their feet with the aim of building on this. The reports followed a study, co-commissioned by Public Health England, that provided targets for office workers to prevent any ill-effects of sitting for too long.

There’s been a lot in the media, in general, about the health benefits of standing as oppose to sitting, in the last couple of years. Buried in among all the stats and warnings about the negative impact on wellbeing, there have been some fear inducing staples: For instance, men who sit for six hours or more a day apparently have an overall death rate that’s 20 per cent higher than that of those men who sit for three hours or less (and in women, it’s 40 per cent). Also, not forgetting that, the risk of obesity grows with the sitting, as does the risk of obesity’s associated illnesses like diabetes and some cancers.

Lack of exercise is, in itself, a killer. It’s responsible for twice as many deaths as the fore-mentioned obesity, with just 20 minutes of walking a day believed to be able to reduce the risk of early death by almost a third.

Fact is, achievable changes in physical activity are far easier to maintain than changes to eating habits and yet can have the greatest of benefits. When it comes to illness and disease, not to mention depression and lethargy, exercise is known to be a direct repellant.

As with anything that makes for happy and healthy staff – exercise initiatives and sitting / standing desks; bike storage to encourage riding to work – there is always going to be a positive impact on productivity which should ultimately please any business leader and manager.

And, finally, there are never going to be any losers when it comes to promoting a fitter workforce. Our brains work much better, and we are far less likely to take time off, if we’re fit so, for the companies who take care of their staff, it has to be a win-win.

Michael Page, joint managing director of workplace consultant, Saracen Interiors