· Features

Nine lessons from the UK's healthiest workplaces

Want to make your health and wellbeing strategy innovative and unique? Here's what some of the most forward-thinking firms are using to keep their people happy and healthy.

1. Standing desks

Thanks to the humble office desk, the average employee spends 50% to 70% of their day sitting down (doubling their risk of developing diabetes, according to the World Health Organisation). With typical PR flair Google and Facebook both introduced treadmill desks to encourage staff to perambulate while they contemplate.

This side of the pond though, so-called ‘standing desks’ are being used. Leicester’s Infirmary, General and Glenfield hospitals are measuring their impact on sedentary levels. Last September 100 were installed, as part of its SMArT project (Stand More at Work), while just last month Virgin Media announced a pilot in its Sheffield call centre to test standing desks for the next six months.

Standing might only have a 1.3 MET (a measure expressing the energy cost of physical activities) compared to 1 MET for sitting, but studies show a person could burn 30,000 more calories a year (equivalent to losing 8lbs) from standing for just two to three hours a day.

2. Promoting ‘vitality’

At retirement and investments consultancy Mercer the term ‘vitality’ is preferred to ‘health’ (which can conjure negative connotations). It uses an online calculator to measure staff’s ‘vitality age’ (their health age compared to their actual numerical age). Factors affecting it include people’s exercise levels, their diet, and drinking and smoking habits. Olympic gold medal winner Jessica Ennis’s vitality age was 23; she’s 27.

“The first time we did it last year, we found staff were not as healthy as they could be,” says group HRD Siobhan Martin. “Some 86% of staff had a vitality age higher than their actual age. But 60% could improve by tackling just one or two risk factors.”

The results have led to the firm establishing ‘health & wellbeing champions’ and next month it launches ‘Mercer Moves’ – a plan simply to get people moving more than they currently do. “I’m not worried about people who already run ultra-marathons,” says Martin. “The biggest gains are for those who are less active, but could benefit from moving more – however they define this.”

3. Beating cancer

With one-in-two Brits now likely to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, more firms are integrating cancer screening into their health strategies. Skin cancer is now the fastest-growing form of the disease in the UK, but is 80% preventable with the right behaviours. Global infrastructure company Lend Lease sought to tackle it by introducing workplace checks.

“Our annual health survey revealed 53% of employees didn’t protect themselves in the sun,” says Gemma Bourne, head of CSR and Lend Lease Foundation. “We have thousands of outdoor working staff so funded enhanced skin cancer diagnosis tests that use ultraviolet cameras. In the UK alone the skin screening picked up 25 cases of undiagnosed cancer, while 30 more people were referred to their GPs.”

Lend Lease is unfortunately still in the minority though. Only around 5.7% of companies offer health screenings, despite 31.4% of workers wanting them, according to Capita’s Employee Insight Report 2014.

4. Take to the water

When you’re based right next to the water it seems a shame to waste the health opportunities it offers. This is certainly the mindset of international software company PostCode Anywhere. Being based on the River Severn, it decided to buy its own staff barge, as well as kayaks that employees can use during lunch-breaks, and before or after work.

Alison Garvey, its HR manager, says: “The barge is our more leisurely and relaxing approach to health, and it can be booked for weekends by any member of staff. The kayaks are for more adventurous types, and after a hard morning session on the water we also reward staff with a free healthy breakfast.”

5. Kitting staff out

At Engine Group, a marketing, digital, PR and brand consultancy firm, head of HR for transformation Linda Goddard says staff won’t engage in health-related activities unless they feel they are supported with the right facilities. That’s why its London head office has set aside dedicated space for 200 cycle racks, installed showers, and has personal lockers for employees who want to run or cycle to work, or do activities before or during lunch hours.

“We’ve also installed tumble-dryers and washing machines,” she says. “It’s valuable office space, but it says to staff ‘we want to support you’.”

6. Getting physical

For some firms the good old ‘no pain, no gain’ is king. Sports brand Sweaty Betty – last year named Britain’s Most Active (Mid-sized) Company – offers its 70 HQ-based staff daily classes, including high-intensity interval training, at its studio. Employees also have access to a free on-site gym and a running club. Its 300 boutique staff can attend free classes run by local fitness experts.

At supply chain consultancy Crimson & Co this is taken to the next level. Each year it canvasses opinion to decide the annual ‘Crimson Challenge’, which has included everything from 10k runs, triathlons, and rock climbing to white-water rafting.

“We have a culture that emphasises teamwork and fun, and being physically active is part of this,” says Helen Chiswell, a consultant at the business who leads the challenges. “Last year a team did the South Downs challenge, and for any event we do we pay all entry fees and provide training sessions in the build up.” The company age range is 28 to 55, but around a quarter tend to take part in each one. “We recently did a climb of Snowden – some took the hard route, others the more tourist-friendly path,” says Chiswell.

7. Nutrition

Free fruit and seminars on healthy eating might not be anything new, but some companies are taking this further. At Danone – whose stated mission is ‘to bring health through food and beverages’ – it lives these values internally by giving staff vouchers to buy healthy foods.

“Every employee gets Danone vouchers worth £10 a month,” says Ann Evans, its social innovation manager. “We also have a staff shop where people can buy other products at reduced prices, and have our own nutritionists to give advice about how to eat better.” For others it’s literally a carrot rather than stick approach. L’Oréal’s UK staff canteen offers only healthy fruit, berries, vegetables, salads and yoghurts.

8. Something for something

Employers are striking health-related ‘deals’. Staff who arrive at work before 9am get a free breakfast of slow energy-releasing porridge at Engine Group. If employees at York University surrender their parking permits, or don’t renew them, they can get vouchers to the value of £40 to spend at Get Cycling (the University’s bike supplier). IBM workers are eligible for a $300 (£191) yearly rebate to eat healthily or exercise more.

By trusting staff to hold brainstorming meetings while they walk along London’s Southbank, marketing agency Momentum says not only are staff de-stressing, re-energising, and walking more, they gain time back too. Fewer late and over-running meetings earn back 90 minutes per employee per week (£842,000 per annum in billable time), and since this was introduced pitch win-rates have also risen from 45% to 85%.

9. Mindfulness & resilience coaching

Lately there’s been increasing attention on good employee mental health. Of Thomsons Online Benefits’ strategy here, people director Hayley Fisher reports: “We want to improve employees’ resilience, and to do so we recognise people have their own ways of dealing with stress. So we have created ‘leisure accounts’. For any activity staff do regularly – be it sport, learning music, or painting – we will contribute towards the costs. The key requirement is that it’s an ongoing thing outside work.”

At Friends Life, resilience comes from the top-down. Last October it co-hosted the company’s first ‘Mental Health: Leading from the boardroom’ event, bringing experts together to consider ways to embed wellbeing into every part of the organisation. Earlier this year it supported ‘Time to Talk Day’ – an initiative to encourage staff to talk to their line managers about mental health issues.

And as part of its AWARE programme, Shell offers its workers sessions on controlled breathing, a meditative practice to improve self-awareness.

Best of the rest:

The Campbell’s Soup company gives healthy cooking lessons; natural gas provider Chesapeake Energy offers free SCUBA certification to all and has an Olympic-sized pool onsite, as well as a sand volleyball court and rock climbing wall; Yahoo pays for golf classes and has an onsite fitness centre; staff at Red Bull get free monthly massages; those at the Royal Marsden Hospital can de-stress with aromatherapy and reflexology; Nomura provides a medical facility with a clinical support team, including a full-time GP, and holistic massage therapy services.