Workplace wellbeing is becoming increasingly important to organisations and is highly valued by potential job candidates. Physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles are causing serious health issues for the working population, making this a priority area for employers.
At present, physical inactivity is costing the UK an estimated £7.4bn a year, according to the Government, through rising long-term health conditions, greater dependency on nursing care and a drop in workplace productivity.
We have recently published A Healthier Workplace, a white paper commissioned by Sport England, that explores which strategies are most effective in reducing physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour among employees.
A sedentary lifestyle is defined as a type of lifestyle where an individual does not receive regular amounts of physical activity. Sitting behind a desk Monday to Friday pushes people toward this category.
It is possible to lead a sedentary life, but still meet physical activity guidance, of course. But it is difficult to achieve this unless someone really increases their activity levels in the evenings after work or during weekends.
Our research found employers and employees have limited understanding of this difference and many haven’t quite grasped the importance of becoming both less sedentary and more physically active to increase employee health and wellbeing.
With more than 20 million Britons classed as ‘physically inactive’, according to the British Heart Foundation, the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer is rising.
However, research has shown building up active hours can help people form a better health profile and reverse the negative effects sedentary behaviour has on the body.
A key finding from our research is the majority of literature contains a distinct lack of good evidence and studies which businesses can use to form robust investment cases.
However, from our review on physical inactivity in the workplace, the most effective methods to increase physical activity were found to be workspace supervised exercise classes and group support. These methods can work particularly well because they introduce a social element, forming
bonds with relatable individuals and giving extra motivation to achieve group health goals.
The most effective interventions were investing in active desks and activity prompts. These act as gentle nudges to increase physical movement and gives employees the flexibility to work standing up or sitting down.
Different employee demographics respond better to some methods than others. A particular focus of our research was on under-represented groups, who are less likely to be meeting physical activity guidelines – including women, lower socioeconomic groups and those with lower levels of educational achievement – who respond best to a combined offline and online multi-component approach to become more active.
There is a common misconception that for change to occur, leaders must be vocal and bold, giving inspirational speeches to drive the new practice. However, this behaviour will not always achieve the desired result.
Physical activity needs to be engrained in workplace culture from the top-down, with leaders exhibiting a true passion for the change and from the ground-up. The process needs to be at the top of every manager’s priorities to develop a new culture for employees and championed by trail-blazers on the ground.
However, employers need to approach these ‘personal’ issues sensitively so employees don’t feel like their personal choices or actions are being criticised. Nutrition and exercise may not appear it on the surface but can represent real challenges for some employees.
Businesses need to keep conversations around healthy lifestyles positive, focusing on the benefits increased physical activity can bring,.
Every workplace is different, so a one- size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. Before developing an in-depth plan for intervention, it may be beneficial to conduct a short survey to understand how employees feel about the proposed methods and which they feel would work best for them personally.
The benefits of an active workforce are clear, as are the risks associated with physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour. Organisations and employees have nothing to lose and everything to gain.