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Reducing physical inactivity in the workplace

Physical inactivity is costing the UK around £7.4 billion a year and the NHS almost £1 billion alone

Workers are living more sedentary lifestyles than generations before, increasing their risk of suffering long-term health conditions and making them more dependent on nursing care. The implications are also making their presence known across the UK workplace; affecting staff productivity levels and increasing the likelihood of presenteeism and long-term absences.

Nuffield Health’s A Healthier Workplace whitepaper, commissioned by Sport England, explores this issue in more detail and provides guidance on the most effective workplace interventions. Here are its main findings, offering advice on how to reduce sedentary behaviour and get your staff moving more.

Sedentary vs inactive: How do they differ?

Sedentary behaviour describes the lifestyle of someone who spends long periods without moving. Most workplaces fall into this category, with employees sitting at their desks for extended periods every day.

It’s not completely different from physical inactivity, but inactivity means not doing things that get your heart rate up and make breathing heavier like high-intensity exercise.

It’s possible to lead a sedentary lifestyle and still be active. However, research suggests sedentary behaviour can be an independent health risk factor, which increases chances of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain types of cancer. So hitting the gym every evening is still not enough if your employees sit at a desk all day.

Business leaders and HR teams looking to improve their employees’ overall health should be thinking of ways to increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour.

What works?

Seeing return on investment while improving the health of your staff will be key objectives in any wellbeing strategy. The good news is that, from our analysis of the latest research, there are interventions that can help get your staff more active.

Firstly, there’s strong evidence that supervised onsite workouts with an instructor can promote physical activity by getting employees involved. Organising group support sessions where staff can get together to learn about healthy living, set fitness goals and track their progress has shown to be successful. Staff respond well to these social activities and thrive on the motivational aspect of working together towards set goals.

You can help reduce sedentary behaviour during the working day by introducing active desks. This way employees can choose to stand throughout the day to help break up the hours of sitting in the same position.

However, interventions don’t always have the same effect on every employee demographic. A review of the current research shows under-represented groups such as women and those with a low level of education or income – who are more likely to be inactive – respond well to a combined approach of online and offline interventions. This mix of motivation and goal-setting seems to encourage workers to stick to a more active lifestyle.

Interventions need to fit around your company, however. Things like space, resources and staff schedules should all be considered when choosing the right intervention.

How to drive behaviour change

UK workers are a fifth less active than they were in the 1960s and this inactivity can have a huge impact on absenteeism, stress levels and overall health. Business leaders are keen to make a positive impact on their employees’ wellbeing but often worry about intruding.

The best way to encourage physical activity is to create a culture that champions being active. Start conversations about fitness and nutrition by inviting in experts to lead classes, and introduce flexible working policies to make it easier for your staff to exercise around their other commitments. Try to encourage employees to walk or cycle to work instead of relying on their cars by offering vouchers, secure bicycle parking and a guaranteed lift home in bad weather.

Every workplace is different so there’s no one-size-fits-all fix. You need to understand your staff and what works for them. Consider distributing a survey to get a feel for what your employees think will work best for them. After all, if they don’t like the idea they’re unlikely to join in.

Davina Deniszczyc is charity director and primary care medical director at Nuffield Health