With the government recognising that by increasing levels of fitness there are benefits to organisations and individuals, Sport England is set to help promote activity in the workplace, says Jamin Robertson
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After a long day in the office and a lengthy commute home, the lure of a drink in front of the television is usually stronger than the urge to lace up the trainers and pound the streets to keep fit. But Sport England has responded to this lethargy by launching a national campaign – Everyday Sport – to improve the nation’s health in the countdown to the 2012 London Olympics. The campaign, launched in September, also supports the government aim of getting the population to take at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
Famous faces from the sporting world such as Sebastian Coe, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Wilkinson are promoting the campaign which will also target employers throughout the UK. With Britain’s long-hours work culture limiting the amount of available time for squeezing-in exercise, employers are being urged to help get inactive staff up and about. Vanessa Ashby, national physical activity and health manager at Sport England, says employers stand to gain too. "If you have a healthy and active workforce, the more productive your workplace is going to be, and the more likely you are to keep hold of quality staff. We recognise there are benefits to the organisation as much as there are for the individual’s health." Evidence from the Department of Health backs her claim. Organisations that have worked toward better fitness have noted improved productivity and retention plus reduced staff turnover and sickness absence. As an example, employees involved in a corporate fitness programme at insurance firm Prudential took five days less sickness absence per year than their less active colleagues. And in a pilot of the Everyday Sport campaign in the North East, Sport England experienced evidence, albeit anecdotal, of improvements in energy, morale, team-working and communication in organisations where staff worked out more.
"In the workplace, we’re all under a huge amount of pressure, so the ability for activity to actually reduce stress levels and anxiety and boost morale are key benefits and messages we are trying to get across," says Ashby. The individual benefits are obvious. People who are physically active are half as likely to die of a heart attack as their less active colleagues. "It’s about [protecting] against obesity and some of the other types of [related] conditions such as coronary heart disease, diabetes prevention, and the mental health benefits [of exercise] as well," adds Ashby. The government has set Sport England a target of lifting participation levels in sport and physical exercise by 3% in three years. But this could be a hard task as Department of Health research reveals 76% of women and 63% of men are not doing the recommended 30 minutes of activity five times a week. A Sport England survey has revealed most respondents want to do more, citing improved health, weight loss, and better sex appeal as the drivers, but have difficulty finding the time. These results suggest people are already well aware of the benefits of exercise, so banging the same old drum about health is not the full answer. With employees leading such busy lives, employers would do well to look seriously at incorporating health benefits into the perks package. While it is hard to imagine UK workers performing early morning star jumps in a bid to mirror Japan’s heavy industry, the example of some organisations in the UK can be a guide.
Workplace wellbeing is a familiar concept at South West Trains, which has been running wellbeing fairs for many years. Other firms in the UK provide corporate personal training as part of their benefits package. The key is bringing this to the majority. "The role for HR managers is to lead development of a policy framework and action plan. Within that action plan, I would see employers making sure staff are aware of national campaigns, and perhaps holding awareness days within the office, getting providers together to promote the benefits," says Ashby. But success may depend on the buy-in from the upper echelons. "That’s the big issue. If you don’t get that buy-in from the top then it’s very difficult for individual employees to take a step for themselves. It’s about cultural change within the organisation."
Once management is singing from the same song sheet, a policy can be established and communicated to staff. Soon after the launch of Everyday Sport, Sport England kick-started interest in the workplace with a month-long programme of Office Games. Employees were encouraged to move around the office with a ‘Take the stairs week’ and an ‘Email free Friday’ and were rewarded for their efforts. "It is important to offer staff a whole range of initiatives, making sure you have a really good mix that appeals to all the workforce, not just those that are already active," says Ashby. Possible initiatives are obvious. Taking the stairs instead of the lift, cycling to work instead of taking the car or train, or simply making lifestyle changes. "The 30-minute message is a government message that Sport England supports, but you can break that down into chunks, so that it’s more accessible. You can do a 10-minute activity and try to accumulate those throughout the day [rather than] all in one go. That’s why messages such as taking the stairs are so important," says Ashby.
Sport England makes information available through its Everyday Sport website highlighting local clubs, leisure facilities and upcoming events. It also urges employers to get involved with the British Heart Foundation Think Fit campaign. Indeed, light-hearted statistics that show 21% of women spend more time doing their hair than exercising and 31% of men are more likely to be found playing video games indicate that better use of spare time could be made. "We’re living in an age where technology has advanced so quickly, in many ways it has removed the need for us to do the activities we used to so we’ve become more sedentary. I also think the environment in which we live is a factor, it’s hard for people to walk and cycle to work in a lot of cases with congestion, and pollution," says Ashby. However, major infrastructure improvements come with a multi-million pound price tag. "[Instead] we can promote cycle networks that already exist, and look harder at how [routes] can be created. It’s about bringing together a wide range of partners to do it. The Transport for London journey planner is a good tool for people in London, so there is a role for that type of information," she adds. Everyday Sport will be a long-running campaign, mirroring the strategy of similar schemes from abroad. Ashby says Sport England will continue to lobby specific sectors of the community, including business.
"There is a role for targeting particular sectors in the future and the business community is one of those." The Office Games is a nudge in that direction. Underpinning the pop-culture marketing are serious aims. In support of the government goal of increasing participation in sport and physical activity within the next three years, the fundamentals are being put in place to quantify the goals. "We’ve just embarked on a national survey which is going to measure every local authority’s participation level. That’s the first time we will have that information, and it’s a really important step for us, giving us the baseline within a particular community for their level of activity which we can then go back and re-survey," says Ashby. And all this is timed to take place during the build up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. "It’s a great integration of events for people to start thinking about their own lives. Sport England is ensuring it benefits the whole country and is about what [people] can do, not necessarily to be a world champion athlete but to be more active and become more involved in sport. It’s a huge opportunity to get active, not just to compete but also to volunteer," she adds.
Vanessa Ashby is physical activity and health manager at Sport England, a role she has held for two years.
Ashby is responsible for working with government and agency sources to promote the benefits of increased activity levels. The job involves working alongside the Department of Health in promoting increased physical activity, a healthy diet and nutritional advice in the workplace, and dealing with issues such as smoking and alcohol.
In one of her earlier roles, Ashby managed the planning and delivery of the Sport Action programme, which was aimed at lifting activity in deprived communities. Prior to joining Sport England, Ashby worked for two local authorities in community development.
About Sport England
Previously known as the English Sports Council, Sport England is the lead agency for the development of sport in England and is responsible for delivering government objectives in encouraging participation levels and development of community sport. Nine regional sports boards provide the strategic lead at the local level. Sport England distributes lottery and exchequer funding and also invests in regional sporting projects. Its sister organisation UK Sport is responsible for developing success in elite sports.
For more information on Sport England and its Everyday Sport campaign, visit www.everydaysport.com or www.sportengland.org, or call the Everyday Sport hotline on 0800 587 6000. To learn more about the British Heart Foundation Think Fit campaign visit www.bhf.org.uk/thinkfit