Feature – focus on healthcare: Activity up, absence down

A more active workforce can lead to fewer lost output days but also a happier and less stressed organisation, Nick Golding looks at successfully managing the process

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Simple exercises such as stretching and diverting eyes from a computer screen can help reduce stress and keep workforces healthy.

13.5 million working days were lost due to stress in 2004, at a cost of £3.7bn to UK business.

If 70% of the UK population exercised for 20 minutes a day, sick days could be cut by 2.78 million a year.

Believe it or not, the odd shoulder stretch at the printer or neck rotation in reception can not only increase productivity at work, it can help combat stress – the condition that cost UK business £3.7bn in 2004 – according to The Stress Management Society.

Traditionally, employers have responded to stress by introducing an employee assistance programme (EAP), but offerings from small fitness and therapy companies are now beginning to creep onto the benefits menu.

Heidi Taylor, director at wellbeing provider Dream, explains: "Companies of a certain size need to be providing something to combat stress, and while EAPs are great, they do not address the fact that most workplace stress and illness simply comes from sitting at a desk." One way of doing this is by enabling staff to exercise at work. Exercise can also help to curb repetitive strain injury (RSI), build employees’ confidence and boost their concentration levels, therefore improving performance and productivity.

Yoga and massages Employers that want to introduce such initiatives typically have two options: devise an exercise programme internally or take on a provider to come into the workplace and explain the best ways of remaining active at work to employees. Exercises employees can be encouraged to take part in include neck rotation, shoulder stretches, and eye exercises, all of which help to increase blood circulation around the body. Allowing employees to take time out of work for classes such as yoga or for massages not only gives them a break, it also helps provide mental and physical relaxation. In order to encourage staff to exercise, employers often only need to make some space available.

"The body is simply not designed to be sat in a static position for so many hours a day. It causes tension in the back and neck which leads to a stressed body, which leads to a stressed mind," says Taylor. Robert Dyer, director at health and fitness company Full Force Fitness, adds: "Employees are starting to recognise the benefits in so much as they feel more relaxed at work, and employers are noticing a decrease in sick days, which must prove the value of exercising," Fitness in workplaces The Health of the nation report by Deloitte and customer service survey company TARP, published this year, gives some support to this view. It revealed that if 70% of the population exercised for 150 minutes per week, the equivalent of just over 20 minutes a day, sick days would be cut by 2.78m per year.

The Fitness Industry Association (FIA), agrees exercise can help prevent conditions such as stress. Members service director, Innes Kerr, says: "The government is looking to invest millions of pounds into healthcare over the next few years, when really they should be looking at how to prevent the need for so many people to go to see a doctor."