· 3 min read · Features

Keeping the workforce healthy may not be an employer's duty, but it's certainly in their own interests

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Do employers have a duty of care to employees to ensure they are aware work commitments have an impact on physical inactivity? Many employers would say that the level of physical activity among their workforce is up to each individual and does not have an impact on their working life; both of these ideas however are not realistic.

The issue of work-life balance is becoming increasingly important to both employers and employees. Modern technology has changed the world of work to a 24/7 society with more people having to juggle responsibilities in the home and the workplace, with increasing demands on their time for each. One element of the work-life balance is maintaining a sense of physical fitness and wellbeing and it is important that employers recognise the role the workplace has to play in the amount of physical activity undertaken by the workforce.

There are generally considered to be four major periods during the day in which we can do some form of moderate exercise (the minimum guidelines of 30 minutes' activity each day refer only to moderate activity not necessarily a full on gym session). Household chores and leisure activities are two of the key areas but interestingly the remaining two areas are related to the workplace both in the time spent at work and the time spent travelling to and from work. The nature of the work we do, how much time we spend working and how we get to work all impact on how much physical activity we can fit into our day. For many people this involves a commute by car or public transport and long working hours behind a desk with little or no breaks throughout the day. It is no surprise then that in the short amount of leisure time many people have each evening exercise is not the first thing they think of.

The consequences of an inactive workforce have a direct impact on the business both in terms of organisational culture and financial business performance. A lack of physical activity can lead to a number of health problems including obesity, diabetes, back pain, depression, stress and lethargy. Employee ill-health negatively affects businesses through absenteeism and long-term sick pay, temporary staff costs, loss of production, poor retention of staff, low morale and decreased job satisfaction, according to a Government paper in 2005.

The Health and Safety Executive in 2004 identified that the cost of sickness absence per employee per annum equates to £3,659 with a total cost to British business of £12 billion. The two most common reasons for health-related absences are musculo-skeletal disorders and stress, depression or anxiety, yet both of these conditions can be improved with increased physical fitness and wellbeing. A more active and healthier workforce will lead to greater individual productivity, increased job satisfaction and overall a happier and more settled workforce.

There is a case for all organisations to realise that a key area for improving the amount of physical activity undertaken by the population is at work and as such there is a need to identify the extent of inactivity and areas where positive change can be made. Many blue-chip employers have already realised that investing in workforce wellbeing provides mutual benefits, but this is not exclusive to larger organisations. We are beginning to see a range of support services on the market to help employers improve staff activity and reduce stress levels and while not all will be effective for all organisations there will be a solution for all companies.

There are two main questions to answer: how healthy is your workforce? And are there ways to improve the wellbeing of your workforce that will have a direct benefit for the company as a whole?

Any intervention strategy to improve workforce wellbeing will of course be tax-deductible but it is important to first do some groundwork to ensure it is effective. Employers need to look into current activity levels, what barriers are currently facing employees and what motivations would help to change behaviour. In turn, this information can be used to help identify the level and nature of interventions most suitable for your own organisational culture.

Kelly Goodwin is based at the Centre for Event and Sport Research, Bournemouth University

Bournemouth University is currently working with organisations to help them to explore how to improve workforce wellbeing and develop effective interventions to ensure a happy, healthy and stable workforce. For more information about working with Bournemouth University please contact kgoodwin@bournemouth.ac.uk