As an employee, you’re often tied to your desk, squinting at a screen for most of the day and counting down the minutes until you can leave. After this you have to force yourself into a strip-lit gym, to burn off the sandwich that you ate for lunch, probably at your desk.

As an employer it must be equally frustrating to motivate a workforce entrenched in sedentary lifestyles. Creating a team with creativity, that gives your business the cutting edge needed for success in these times of recession is difficult enough, but nigh on impossible if they lack energy, enthusiasm and drive.

This Catch-22 is more common than you might think in the offices of the UK. The Work Foundation sums this up succinctly, “there is no doubt that the health of the UK workforce is getting worse”. Quite. With data from the Work Foundation suggesting an average of between three and five per cent of UK employees are sick from work every day and a further 25% to 30% are at work but performing sub-optimally, health in the workplace needs to be a top priority.

Healthy lifestyles not health kicks

We have become so accustomed to spending our entire working day sitting at a desk that it’s started to take over other parts of our lives. We get home and sit in front of the computer or the TV and even those who go to the gym take the formality of office etiquette with them, clocking in and doing their set time.

We all know health is important but few understand it holistically as something to embrace on a consistent basis, inside work as well as outside. This is increasingly important with more and more office jobs operating beyond the nine-to-five. We’re not just working longer in the office, but we’re checking our emails on our phones in bed and writing reports on the train to the office. People are spending a substantial proportion of their life working so it cannot be viewed as detached from your wellbeing out of the office.

We have, in too many cases, allowed the workplace to become a driver of inactivity and as such it is an increasingly important battleground for healthy lifestyles. Staying fit outside work is of great importance, of course, but things need to be done to stimulate the office and make it a dynamic place to work that supports a variety of opportunities to stretch the legs, get the body moving – and subsequently, the mind.

Musical chairs

There are some simple measures to get staff out of their seats more. Removing wastepaper bins and minimizing printers to one on each floor, for example, are increasingly common. But any opportunity to get up and talk to colleagues is a useful one, giving the dual benefit of energy from physical activity and a psychological boost from human interaction. Not to mention the added water-cooler moments that can ignite sparks of genius between workmates.

Tea rotas can be a useful tool to generate activity, making sure everyone takes their turn to leave their desk, rest their eyes from their screen and interact with others in the office. A charity tax for using the lift rather than the stairs (unless they have a medical reason to take the lift of course) can ensure people don’t slip into lethargic habits. Or encourage people to get out of the office on lunch breaks by making a map of the local area that measures the distance, time and amount of steps to local shops and attractions for employees.

Sprinting from the running club

Using your space to support a range of activities is important. Nothing sums up the ‘exercise for some’ attitude more than a running club, an activity suited to a minority of people who are probably already fitter than your average worker. Anyone with a weak knee or simply a penchant for lighter exercise is unlikely to see any benefit. Think outside the box and offer activities that suit your team.

Table tennis is increasingly popular with office workers – as a stroll through Canary Wharf will testify – with eager workers queuing up for the outdoor tables. Workplace allotments, as used by as Ginsters for example, are another great way to offer a diverse range of exercise to employees. This is a great form of exercise, which encourages healthy eating and gives the brain a boost from learning a new skill.

Substantial additions such as these display a serious commitment to employee wellbeing and signify that the workspace is an area for movement, fun and energy, as well as diligence.

Change from the top

These changes need a level of buy-in from the top, either through funding, or delegating as a task of serious importance, to ensure work activities appeal to all rather than just the already health conscious.

With much to be gained from increased productivity and reduced absence, employee health should be of the utmost importance to organisations.

These issues affect employers and employees alike and it is crucial that companies commit to creating a workplace culture that supports it.

By Dr Jenny Leeser, Clinical Director of Occupational Health, Bupa, HR Zone, September 2013

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