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Make the workplace work for people’s health

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A person will spend around 80,000 hours working throughout their lives. As a result, the workplace has a profound effect on their health.

Both employers and employees are increasingly shaping the working environment to actively improve workforce health. 

In those organisations with workplace wellbeing programmes the employee benefits from improved health and the organisation benefits from improved productivity of its workforce.  Ultimately, we can all benefit if workplaces can be used to promote and improve the health of Ireland’s workforce through reduced levels of obesity, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and achieving and maintaining an optimal fitness level.  

Friday, 27th March 2015 is an important day for employers.  It is Ireland’s first National Workplace Wellbeing Day.  Companies of all sizes in the public and private sector are putting a special focus on the wellbeing of their employees.  The aim is to encourage more organisations to put workplace wellbeing at the centre of their business and employee engagement strategies.

Approximately 11 million days are lost through absenteeism every year at a cost of €1.5bn to the Irish economy. Presenteeism, where employees turn-up for work despite illness or health problems, is estimated to result in a loss of productivity on average 7.5 times greater than absenteeism.  The bottom line is that improving employee wellbeing affects the bottom line.

The workplace is an ideal place to promote and encourage healthier living because people spend such a high proportion of their lives there.   The World Health Organisation believes the workplace is the ideal setting to promote health to a large proportion of the population.  It directly influences the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of workers and in turn the health of their families, communities and society. 

Healthy Ireland, the Government’s national health and wellbeing framework, also prioritises improving people’s health by making workplaces healthier.  It is heartening to see that both Healthy Ireland and Ibec and indeed many public and private sector organisations from around the economy are supporting and participating in National Workplace Wellbeing Day.  This will help ensure that workplace wellbeing remains a priority for both companies and Government after the 27th March.  

This nationwide campaign on Friday, 27th March aims to improve employee health through promoting effective wellbeing initiatives targeted at better nutrition and physical activity in Irish workplaces. 

According to research commissioned by the Nutrition Health Foundation, only one third of employees take the recommended weekly level of exercise for a healthy lifestyle.  Four in ten office bound workers say they are not physically active at all during their working day. Encouragingly, the NHF research also shows that Ireland’s workforce wants to get healthier with employees believing their employers can play a role in assisting them.  Two thirds (65%) of employees recognise they need to consume healthier food and drinks, for example, yet just 15% said their employers provide healthy food choices in company canteens or vending machines.  

So employers have a critically important role to play. Many are already doing so with workplace initiatives that range from providing pedometers for all staff to colour coded menus in canteens, on site laughter yoga classes to inter-company fitness challenges. This campaign is about encouraging employers to look at what they are already doing in the area of workplace wellbeing, identify what is working well and promote it amongst employees. Equally importantly, it is about identifying where improvements can be made, and making them too. Effective workplace wellbeing is a journey for employers and employees alike.

NHF’s research also revealed that just half of all employers provide facilities that might be deemed to promote a healthy lifestyle for their employees. The prospect of getting involved might at first appear daunting and labour intensive.  Wellbeing initiatives aren’t the preserve of large companies. Small companies can introduce initiatives that have profound effects on employee health and wellbeing.

The reality is that any form of physical activity is better than being sedentary and increasing daily physical activity levels doesn’t have to cost money.  Simply breaking-up prolonged periods of sitting, arranging “stand-up” meetings, taking the stairs rather than the lift and identifying routes of various distances around the vicinity of the workplace for lunchtime walks or runs with colleagues can make a significant contribution towards the recommended 30 minutes of daily moderate intensity physical activity. 

Obviously there is much more that can be done. As part of Workplace Wellbeing campaign we are showcasing the initiatives undertaken by four companies:  Aramark, Bank of Ireland, Fenero and Teleflex, – large multi-nationals to an 11-person company – to show what can be done.  These companies are undertaking workplace wellbeing initiatives which can be easily adopted to suit small, medium and large companies. 

Already this campaign has captured the attention of employers across the public and private sector with companies both large and small signing up to take part.  I’d like to see it as the start of a shared journey between Government, employer and employee.   The destination is improved health, increased productivity and ultimately, a happier citizen.

Professor Niall Moyna, Chairman, NHF Centre for Preventive Medicine, DCU

For full details on the day and how to get involved visit www.nhfireland/wellbeing

Online Editors