Tanni Grey-Thompson was the esteemed host and observed that had a discussion on this subject been held two years ago, there would have been a number of empty seats. On this day, however, it was standing room only.
In this summary, we’ve highlighted some of the key insights and advice given by our panel who explain why wellbeing has become a major issue in the workplace.
Crucially, they also provided takeaways that will not only help you and your colleagues to become fitter and healthier, but can also boost your bottom line…
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson – Chair of ukactive and winner of 11 Paralympic gold medals
Richard Holmes – Director of Wellbeing at Westfield Health
Chris Fung – Former CEO at health food chain crussh
David Capper – Commercial Director at Westfield Health
Mark Twigg – Director at Cicero Group
1. The economic impact for employers
Tanni started the session by putting into the context the size of the task that faces UK employers but also the potential rewards on offer.
She said, “26% of the UK population are physically inactive. This means they fail to achieve their 30 minutes of activity in a week, they put their health at serious risk, with a cost of over £20 billion to the UK economy every year.
“A significant proportion of that cost falls on employers. Sedentary office environments have become the norm for many people.
“Many workers spend three-quarters of their day sitting down and that’s often for extended periods of time. This can lead to a range of preventable health conditions including musculoskeletal disorders, stress depression and anxiety.
But she also added that “independent research from The Lancet shows that getting people active for just one hour a day can offset the risk of a sedentary working day. Supporting employees to incorporate movement into their working day should be a priority for all UK businesses.”
2. The challenge of creating change
Tanni opened the discussion to the rest of the panel by asking what the barriers are for people to abandon unhealthy behaviours and lifestyles.
David Capper said, “If you think of the internationalised business world, it’s a perfect storm - longer hours, sedentary behaviour, fast food outlets (to name a few)… We’re engineering all activity out of our lives. It’s going to take a generation to engineer behaviour change.”
Building on that theme, Richard Holmes added that “if you look at your body now, it’s almost identical to the caveman. But, the caveman was an amazing piece of evolutionary engineering which is why we became the dominant species on the planet, designed to be active 14 hours a day.
“We’ve got to bring the activity back into our lives and the workplace is the ideal place to do that because the average office worker spends seven hours a day sitting down. When you add in commuting and watching TV at home, you come to around 10 hours a day.”
However, Chris Fung took a more positive stance on physical health. “Attitudes have shifted in the past five years. This is a generalisation, but I believe the younger generation think more about what they eat.” He saw mental health as a bigger challenge for millennials, an argument that is backed up by recent studies relating to work and stress among the under 30s.
3. What employers can do to address stress
The panel took questions from the floor and one member of the audience asked if there is anything that employers should be doing to proactively tackle the stressful environment of the workplace?
Richard said, “In terms of the workplace programmes that we run, our biggest selling services are built around stress and resilience.”
But he added that there is often a breakdown in communication. “When we do employee training programmes on how to cope better (with stress) they will ask us, ‘have you talked to the managers?’ When we do line manager training they will say ‘have you talked to the senior team?’ So, it’s a cultural issue and must be led from the top.”
Mark Twigg is a director at communications agency, Cicero Group, and has long-championed wellbeing programmes. He revealed that he had been suffering from depression for 25 years and went on to explain how he shared this with his colleagues. “We had a town hall session where I talked to everybody and I wasn’t afraid to open up.
“I had periods where I didn’t have the support, where I became unemployed, where I became homeless and I’m very keen that at Cicero we have the support in place for people to know that doesn’t have to happen. A lot of people who have joined us then tell us that historically a lot of employers have said ‘this is none of our business.’
“Trust, honesty, openness. Building a culture where people can talk is the starting point for all of this.”
4. How wellbeing can make an impact on the bottom line
The panel was asked by another member of the audience to explain how supporting people with mental and physical health conditions contributes to the bottom line for employers, so that senior management realises that it’s a business-critical issue.
Mark crunched the numbers and said, “The figure I’ve seen (for the impact on the economy) for mental health alone in the UK is £42bn, which consists of staff turnover and sickness absence. In our industry, one in five people leave every 12 months. By the time you’ve paid somebody off and employed a headhunter, it can cost £15-£20,000 to replace someone. So, a company like Cicero can add something like £80,000 to its bottom line.
“The programmes we put in place to support those interventions cost a fraction of that amount. So, from a business perspective, it’s a complete no-brainer. But a lot of employers just aren’t on this page yet.”
5. What you can do now
Towards the end of the session, each member of the panel was asked to provide one simple piece of advice that everyone could put into action when they go back to work.
David Capper: “If you’ve got meetings rooms, then going forward add another one which is for walking meetings. It is something we’ve done, and it is hugely popular.”
Mark Twigg: “Around 20 years ago, I was working at Direct Line and they started having standing meetings. Immediately you are more productive because they take around a third of the time that a sit-down meeting lasts for.”
Richard Holmes: “We’re not allowed to eat our lunch at our desk. We must go to a breakout area to get some social interaction or we have to leave the building altogether.”
Chris Fung: “Advice on nutrition changes every month but the maxim of ‘everything in moderation’ still holds true. And do plenty of walking.”
Tanni-Grey Thompson: “Or pushing! My daughter’s history teacher takes them marching through the playground to learn all their dates, which is why she remembers every date for a history exam because she’s doing it while she’s doing physical exercise and activity.”
The key takeaways
We must make it manageable
“Humans are inherently lazy,” said Richard. "We like things simple and laid on a plate. Part of the process of building plans for people is about giving them simple things to do. So, we focus from the provider side in terms of developing programmes with daily rituals – five or six things you can do each day to help you eat a little healthier, sleep a bit better, move a little more."
We need to measure success
Richard explained that many organisations have invested in wellbeing programmes but only focused on engagement.
“It is one of the most difficult conversations I have with clients because I have to ask, ‘what data do you currently collect’? ‘Do you understand what your productivity or absenteeism levels are and what contributes to those levels’?”
When we have data that supports the effectiveness of a wellbeing programme, it will build the case for further commitment and investment.
We need a little more conversation
Many of us will have heard somebody being called out as a ‘part-timer’ at work for simply leaving on time. Mark asserted that it is incumbent upon management to tell staff that they must not feel obliged to work late and to have a life outside of the office.
“You know, you can say things as a manager that will change the language, the culture, the behaviour. You will make it okay. You will give people the permission to do good things.”
To put it another way, as Chris said, “The single biggest thing any organisation can do is give permission to staff to take time for physical activity.”
There are simple steps that employers can take to create drastic improvements in employee health. Indeed, encouraging colleagues to take better care of themselves does not need to be a huge undertaking. It’s about gradual change and learning to walk before you run. But it’s important that change not just comes from senior management, but that they also practice what they preach.
The payoff is a win-win situation for employers and employees and David Capper provided perhaps the single most compelling argument to promote wellbeing at work. “All the data says that if you are physically more active, emotional wellbeing conditions reduce significantly.
“It’s like a miracle pill that no pharmaceutical company will promote because they can’t sell it as a pill, because it’s free!”
When you begin to truly believe in the physical and emotional wellbeing of your staff it can completely transform the face of your business, improve productivity and create a positive working environment, helping you to retain staff and making you a desirable place for prospective employees to work.
Westfield Health, our preferred partner of Health and Wellbeing Services, can help ensure your employees are well beings. IoD members can access specially negotiated discounts on a range of products and services.
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