Further food for thought on health and wellbeing in the workplace

Anne Coufopoulos, a dietitian and specialist in public health from Coventry University’s faculty of health and life sciences, offers some pointers for how businesses can create a healthier working environment.

Dr Anne CoufopoulosBack in January I wrote about the potential business benefits of encouraging good nutrition amongst employees but, as important as healthy eating is, there’s more to maintaining workplace wellbeing than counting calories.

There are a whole host of things that can affect our health and wellbeing – not just in the workplace but in our personal lives as well – and these include external factors that seem beyond our control, like sweeping political change or the economic climate for example. Change brings uncertainty, which can lead to feelings of insecurity, which in turn can impact on our health.

We’re all preparing for change on a national scale with Brexit and while the negotiations over the next two years will give us a better idea of where we’re heading there is currently a great deal of uncertainty about what Britain will look like after it leaves the European Union.

As the Better Health at Work Alliance (BHWA) recently reported, leaving the EU will undoubtedly affect the UK workplace health and wellbeing environment. The most obvious concern, as the alliance notes, is around the knock-on effect of an anticipated post-Brexit economic downturn.

But despite some instability in the immediate period following the referendum it seems that for now at least the predicted economic slump has not materialised. In fact, the UK economy has grown more strongly than most developed countries and this growth is reflected in the workplace health and wellbeing sector too with BHWA reporting its members are now focusing more resources in this area.  This makes good business sense as it becomes increasingly important in such uncertain times for employers to make sure their staff members are well and therefore more productive (and happy) at work.

One excellent way of achieving a healthy working environment is by adopting the Workplace Wellbeing Charter.This award allows employers to demonstrate their commitment to the health of their workforce by providing easy and clear guidelines on how to make workplaces a supportive and productive environment in which employees can flourish.  It is a voluntary self-assessment scheme open to all public, private and voluntary sector organisations based in England and open to large and small businesses alike and can be implemented without significant financial outlay.

In Coventry, where I’m based, the City Council has been leading and supporting workplace health for many years and since 2014 delivering the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, when it became a national award (indeed much of the earlier work in Coventry was incorporated into the national Charter).

There are over 100 businesses here who are either current holders, have been reaccredited (have held the Charter for over two years) or are working towards it. In terms of human resources, that affects just under 100,000 employees. Coventry University Student Union also has the Charter, does the university’s student services department.

On site services such as free health checks and smoking cessation sessions in the workplace cost employers nothing but could make an immediate difference to their sickness absence costs. Such free services can be invaluable in ‘nudging’ employees to make other changes to their lifestyle like improving their diet and increasing their levels of physical activity which can lead to long-term term health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and improved fitness levels.

I stated at the beginning that nutrition was one aspect of wellbeing in the workplace and, as we have seen above, there are other things employers can do to make their business a healthier place to be. But I have a professional interest in the food we consume – what we eat is important and not just in terms of our own personal health.

Interestingly, a study carried out in the US in 2012 across three large companies, with nearly 20,000 employees found that those who ate an unhealthy diet were 66 per cent more likely to report productivity loss compared with their co-workers who ate whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

So as we continue towards a potentially new era outside of the EU , it seems timely that employers consider the benefits of putting formal plans, such as the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, in place to maintain and further develop a healthy and productive workforce.

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