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Wellness in the workplace

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People think about their health a lot these days – and with good reason. When so many spend most of their working days in front of a computer screen, it is essential to find ways of keeping fit and introducing variety into a daily routine, writes Kirsten Morgendaal, area director of Regus.
It’s not just the essentially sedentary nature of many people’s working days that constitutes a health hazard. Modern living is full of temptations, not least in the fast-food outlets, stalls, bars and restaurants that dominate urban streets round the world.
Morgendaal wonders who eats all this food whose aroma wafts past every step consumers take. For those who frequently travel by air, there are other more specific health risks, like deep-vein thrombosis.
There is no doubt, however, about the biggest threat to well-being – stress. Why do so many executives follow strict exercise and dietary regimes? It’s not just that they are trying to keep physically fit; they also find that exercise takes their minds off their work for a moment, and helps them sleep at the end of the day. Physical fitness and mental well being are seen to go together.
One of the most comprehensive studies this century was conducted with more than 1 200 public transport staff in Austin, Texas between 2003 and 2007.
Partly funded by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a wellness project offered staff individual consultations with personal trainers, the use of a 24-hour fitness centre, preventive screenings, healthier food options, cash incentives, newsletters, workshops, dietary counselling and help with giving up smoking.
Although the programme cost money in the first three years, it saved money in the two ensuing years and reduced absenteeism by 25%. Participants typically became more physically active, lost weight, reduced their blood pressure and switched to more healthy food. Over a five-year period, the overall return on the investment was calculated to be 2.43.
At the workplace, there are simple things people can do to make these things available. Encourage people to cycle to work; serve healthier food in staff restaurants; offer fresh fruit instead of chocolate bars.
Encourage people to take proper lunch breaks so that they have a chance to get outside. Start an after-work running club. Put money aside to support sports teams that can bolster employees’ pride in their company.
These things hardly require substantial capital outlay. Yet it’s remarkable how slow companies have been in recent years to take such small steps to improve their staff’s all-round health.
According to a survey of HR and finance managers by London South Bank University and health consultant Vielife, a mere 41% of companies discuss employee health and wellbeing at board level. The report’s authors say this reveals a “wellness gap” – which brings readers to an even more striking figure.
This is that while 67% think that employee wellness should be a corporate performance management factor, only 25% of employers have introduced performance measures linked to health and wellness.
It could be that this apparent neglect of employee health is caused by the prevailing economic gloom and general reluctance to spend money in areas that old-fashioned bosses might consider “fluffy”.
If so, it’s a classic example of short-termism, or plain narrow-mindedness. Any enlightened employer should accept that employee health is only going to become even more important, and avoidable factors like poor diet, rising stress and all-round poor health can all eat into the bottom line.
Maybe such people are more susceptible to the competitive argument: in the search to enlist top talent, can businesses afford to be so easily outbid by a rival who offers the corporate equivalent of a backrub and a detox session?
There are times, however, when workers become overloaded with propaganda about exercise and healthy eating. It is not the whole picture, after all. Being fit for work means a lot more than working out at the gym a couple of times a week, or eating fresh vegetables, explains Morgendaal.
Above all, it means achieving a suitable balance in life – and everyone finds their equilibrium in different ways. Morgendaal finds gyms boring, so that kind of exercise doesn’t work for her. She prefers tennis or sailing. And although mental and physical well-being go together to a certain extent, she is probably more interested in the mental side.
In this respect, there is little doubt that it is the Chinese and other Eastern cultures that have most to teach workers. From Confucius to Gandhi and up to the present day, it is the Eastern philosophers who have reminded users what they can achieve by allowing themselves time for contemplation.
The practice of yoga is the most obvious example of the way this approach has been incorporated into the health regimes of successful business people. Yet still too many people concentrate on the simple mechanics of it – the sun salutation, the various positions, the breathing routines – when it is the mental state that matters most.
There was a Chinese writer called Lin Yutang who spent much of his later life in the United States and acquired a worldwide following in the mid 20th century with his updated brand of Confucianism, mixing Eastern philosophy with western humour.
Among his many aphorisms, he suggested that: “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”
Morgendaal can think of a lot of exercise freaks with their lycra gear, heart monitors and ever more elaborate equipment who might do well to ponder such ideas.
It’s one reason why she doesn’t believe in being too prescriptive when it comes to health. Give people the opportunity to exercise, by all means. But above all, give them time to think.