How to incorporate fitness into the workplace

Fitness at Work

Need to know:

  • Employers should avoid the word ‘fitness’  because it can put off less-active employees; think ‘activity’ instead.
  • A programme that is habit forming, such as a walking challenge or stair prompts, helps engage employees in health and wellbeing.
  • Programmes can be made fun by including an element of competition, and a reward can encourage participation.

Improving employees’ fitness can have significant benefits for organisations, including increasing productivity, driving down employee benefits costs and boosting wellbeing. Having a good understanding of the workforce is key to maximising these benefits.

Even a small amount of exercise can deliver some significant health improvements; the National Health Service (NHS) states that regular exercise can bring a reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke; a lower risk of depression; and a reduction in the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.

Unsurprisingly, this also translates into some significant pluses for the organisation. Matthew Judge, director at Jelf Group, says: “A fitness campaign can create a really good buzz in the workplace, driving up employee engagement. This can lead to reductions in sickness absence, as well as improvements in productivity and retention rates.”

It can also drive savings on the employee benefit spend. Providing employees are not taking up something at the extreme end of the fitness scale, becoming more active can reduce claims, and subsequently premiums, on private medical insurance, group income protection and life assurance.

Fitness options

There are plenty of different ways an employer can motivate employees to improve their fitness. Depending on budget, these could include an onsite gym, personal training sessions, exercise classes, subsidised gym membership and a bikes-for-work scheme.

Jenni Wilson, operations director, corporate fitness and wellbeing at Nuffield Health, says that, wherever possible, the provider offers personalised advice for each employee. “Our staff will take employees through a health MOT and design a programme specifically for them. This engages them more, leading to better results.”

But, while all of these initiatives can motivate employees to improve their fitness, they might not always have as broad a reach as desired, says Paul Nuki, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of StepJockey. “The trouble with these types of fitness initiatives is they only engage the 10% to 20% of employees who are already doing something,” he says. “They won’t reach the ones that would really benefit from improving their fitness.”

Fitness for all

Thankfully there are ways to reach out to employees who do not see themselves as gym bunnies. “Offer something simple that everyone can do that will become habit forming,” explains Nuki. “All [employees] need is 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week to see improvements in [their] lifetime health.”

StepJockey’s ‘stair prompts’ is one example of this. By using visual nudges to encourage employees to take the stairs rather than the lift, and enabling them to log the activity on an app, employees quickly clock up the recommended activity time.

Other examples could include a collective weight-loss campaign, supplemented with advice on healthy eating and exercise or wearable technology to encourage employees to track their activity. “It doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive,” says Judge. “Ask employees what they’d like to do, experiment and keep it fun.”

A healthy dose of competition can also encourage more activity. Challenges such as the World Cancer Research Fund UK Towers Challenge and the Global Corporate Challenge pit teams against each other to cover or climb the furthest distance. Emily Sowden, European marketing manager at Global Corporate Challenge, says: “It’s about changing behaviour. The majority of participants continue to be active after the programme is finished.”

Safety first

Whatever an employer does, it is important to be mindful of the health and safety and legal aspects of any fitness initiatives. Ensuring employees know how to exercise safely is important and where there is equipment, for instance in a gym, demonstrations and supervision are essential. For example, where a gym is not supervised, Nuffield Health recommends CCTV, buddy systems and user alarms to ensure safety.

And, although there are plenty of opportunities for health and safety experts to express concerns around fitness in the workplace, the benefits of many of these activities outweigh the risk, for example, fitter employees will be more likely to be able to evacuate the workplace safely in the event of fire, says Nuki. “Where this happens the biggest loss of life is due to people not being able to find or manage the stairs to escape,” he explains. “Get them active and [employers] cut this risk.”

Alstom 430Alstom UK and Ireland uses exercise challenge to improve health and wellbeing of staff

Engineering firm Alstom UK and Ireland, which employs more than 2,500 people in a variety of manual and office-based roles, identified it was facing potential health problems as a result of an ageing workforce.

Claire Sallis, occupational health and wellbeing manager at Alstom UK and Ireland, says: “We wanted to encourage our employees to be more active and take more interest in their health and wellbeing. Many of our employees worked long hours and commuted into work so they weren’t getting much exercise.”

To turn things around, it introduced the Global Corporate Challenge in 2011, initially piloting it in one of its depots. The feedback and results from the 70 employees that took part in this first challenge encouraged Sallis to roll it out to the whole organisation the following year. “As well as a reduction in absence and improvements in productivity, we found that people really enjoyed the team aspect of the challenge as it helped to bring them together,” she explains. “We also saw improvements in engagement. Employees like the fact we’re investing in their health and wellbeing.”

Each year more and more employees have taken part in the challenge with around 60% of the workforce expected to sign up this year. “Our employees are really seeing the benefits of being more active,” Sallis adds. “We’ve seen them setting up walking groups and weight-loss clubs and it’s much more common to see people heading off for a game of badminton after work. It also benefits our employees’ families; rather than sit on the sofa, they’re going out for walks together now.”

Dr MunirViewpoint: Breaking up sitting time can improve physical and mental wellbeing 

Sitting for long periods has been found to be harmful. We will sit at our desks at work for a long time and then go home and watch TV. So we are sitting again. Prolonged sitting has been linked to a risk of diabetes, obesity, and a lot of metabolic diseases.

The evidence now suggests that if you are sitting for eight or nine hours and you then do one hour of exercise, it has very little impact. Breaking up bouts of sitting time at work has been found to reduce the risks of diabetes and other conditions.

Regularly breaking up sitting by standing and moving lightly enables the blood and oxygen to flow through the body better, meaning that employees will feel much more energised. Because they feel more energised, employees also feel better psychologically, so their general wellbeing improves. Evidence also suggests that breaking up sitting time has no adverse effects on work performance and, in fact, has been associated with high work engagement; highly engaged workers are likely to move more rather than sit at their desks for long periods.

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Strategies to reduce prolonged sitting often require workplace policy changes to make them effective. For example, employees can break their prolonged periods of sitting behaviour by using a desk that can be raised or lowered. Employers could also use communal printers and waste bins to encourage people get up and walk around. Employees need to be kept motivated to change behaviour and work-related problems often need to be addressed first before trying to shift employees’ personal health behaviours.

Dr Fehmidah Munir is reader in health psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University