Investing in staff’s health is good for business

Research has shown that fitter, healthier staff have less time off work. For employers it’s about providing information and programmes on exercise and eating that give people at work choices to opt in or out, says Dr Paul Kanas, head of occupational health, Cadbury Trebor Bassett

Wellbeing and healthcare have been rising up the HR agenda in recent years, with employers now taking more notice of the role they can play than ever before.

Organisations often use that well-known catchphrase: "our employees are our greatest asset". If this was true in the past, then it is even more relevant today as organisations slim down their workforces in order to remain competitive.

At least part of the answer to business success lies in making sure that employees in any enterprise are fit enough to deliver outstanding performance on a regular and consistent basis. Research has shown that fitter, healthier employees are less susceptible to sickness absence, but there can be some confusion about whose responsibility it is when it comes to making choices about a lifestyle that leads to better health. Ultimately, it is down to the individual, but employers can help by providing an environment that educates, engages and encourages the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. It is not a case of nanny-state pampering, it’s about providing information and programmes that give people at work the opportunity to opt in or opt out. In the end, whether to participate has to be the employee’s choice.

Government guidelines published in December 2006 by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence call on workplaces to provide opportunities for their staff to eat a healthy diet and to be physically active. Why is the government so keen to get employers on board? The answer is quite simple. The health service is currently spending at least £1 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. To make matters worse, health experts predict a rising trend in heart disease, cancer and diabetes over the next 20 to 30 years.

Forward-thinking, responsible employers can do many things to help keep their workforce healthy. In broad terms, health-promotion programmes in the workplace need to focus on four key areas: activity, nutrition, preventive health checks and work-life balance. At Cadbury Trebor Bassett, our Fit for Life programme, launched in 2005, has focused on all four of these areas. The programme has been well received by our employees across all of our manufacturing, distribution and head office sites. One-to-one confidential health checks have proved popular and have often acted as a catalyst for change. The health checks have been supported by a range of activities aimed at helping employees to make the changes they want to make, such as quitting smoking groups, relaxation therapy, lunchtime walking groups, weight-management classes, cycling and running groups. We also provide a range of options on our workplace cafeteria menus, which allows employees to make informed choices and to build balance into their diets. As a result, our workforce is now eating more fruit and consuming larger amounts of fibre-rich foods, such as brown rice and wholemeal bread.

Corporate culture
To be successful, any health-promotion programme in the workplace requires the support and involvement of the most senior management in the company. Without this demonstration of commitment, the programme will be destined to fail. This is because these programmes only succeed if they can become embedded into the fabric and the culture of the company. Rather than being seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ bolt-on initiative, the programme has to become part of ‘the way we do things round here’ and promoted with the same enthusiasm and passion applied to other aspects of the business like quality and customer service.

In the long-term, organisations that invest in health-promotion programmes will reap the benefits in terms of lower sickness absence rates, improved productivity and higher levels of staff retention. In summary, both the employer and the employees benefit – a real win-win situation

Dr Paul Kanas, head of occupational health, Cadbury Trebor Bassett