What are employees doing to address obesity?

14Jul 16

Published in Forbes: By Karen Higginbottom

Obesity in the workplace in the Western world is an increasing concern, both for employers and productivity. Officially, more than one-third (35.1%) of adults over the age of 20 in the United States are classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The implications of a sedentary workforce shouldn’t be underestimated: Sitting is more disruptive to workplace productivity than cyber-loafing according to an Ergotron 2016 JustStand Index. Banking is a pretty sedentary profession, so how does the sector fare when it comes to supporting the physical well-being of its employees?

U.S. firms are more advanced in delivering well-being programs than their U.K. counterparts. Approximately, half of U.S. employers offer wellness promotion initiatives, according to a 2013 survey by RAND and larger employers are more likely to have complex programs.

So what are organizations doing to ensure the physical well-being of their employees? Twenty-nine percent of employers identify obesity as a significant issue for their company, according to a global 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work survey of 1669 employers in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Asia. The research found that two-thirds of employers offer gym subsidies, but only 18% of employers offer weight management programs. More than half of employers sponsor fitness challenges between locations.

Some financial institutions have on-site gym facilities and classes, comments Kirsten Samuel, managing director, employee well-being specialist for Kamwell. “Other things like cycle-to-work schemes are widely used by employers in this sector. There are more creative scheme coming in such as the introduction of ‘High Octane Rides’ in Barclays , where staff have the chance of getting bursts of activity from using exercise bikes in between meetings and other tasks.”

Wellness programs have been a part of the benefits package for quite some time, remarks Jeff Oldham, vice-president, Benefitstore at Benefitfocus. “However, some of the larger enterprises are incorporating more innovative programs to address the varied needs of employees and encourage engagement to augment the more traditional wellness programs like on-site flu shots and vaccinations, smoking cessation programs, health screening and nutrition solutions.”

Finance firms are also looking to partner with the wearable tech providers to supply their workforces with fitness gadgets like Fitbits to monitor physical activity – a good way of getting people to think about their levels of activity, said Samuel. “There are examples of some even going as far as to create internal corporate challenges where individuals and teams can compete against each other.”

Why does physical well-being matter in the workplace? There is a lot of data showing the links between stress, depression and weight gain. Chronic stress is implicated in the development of obesity, and prolonged chronic stress pushes up blood sugar, impacts on the immune system and has a wide number of metabolic effects.

The ways in which physical fitness and increased mental agility link to productivity and reduced sickness absence are recognized by large employers and employees alike, remarks Samuel. “Organizations are aware of the fact that healthy, happy employees can be a catalyst for high-performing individuals and teams.”

HR can play a vital role in developing corporate well-being programs, added Samuel. “It’s the job of HR to understand the mechanics of its workforce and the relationship between people and organizational performance. Health is part of the formal duty of care that employers have and that falls into the HR remit. More than this, HR is the function best equipped to make the important links between well-being and the broader business and people strategy and has the tools to leverage employer and employee buy-in to well-being programs.”

In the U.S., the focus on physical wellness has been accelerated by rising health costs and the new requirements of the Affordable Care Act, said Oldham. “It’s also proven to be an effective way to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism. However, HR is not just focused on physical wellness programs but is also looking for ways to address emotional well-being, mental health and financial wellness as physical ailments are often a symptom of a larger cause and other life stressors.”

Oldham added that regardless of what a wellness program is looking to address, it’s important they are inclusive for all employees and can be tracked alongside individual goals to show that they are actually helping to improve the health of employees.

TREAT CRED: Should offices promote smarter snacking?

14Apr 16

Most offices, most days, look like the Cadbury’s warehouse. Sugary stuff gets wheeled out whatever the occasion. Someone’s birthday? Buy a cake. Won a contract? Buy a cake. Lost a contract? Gosh, well, we’d better just buy a bigger cake to cheer everyone up, hadn’t we?

‘We’re all conditioned to the idea that we celebrate with cakes and sweet treats, and the workplace is no different,’ says Kirsten Samuel from wellbeing firm Kamwell. ‘But treats are also used as a means of coping with stress and everyday pressures.’

‘On one level, of course, it’s a positive part of a working environment – a perk, something that brings everyone together. But in wellbeing terms the culture of cake is a problem.’

Yes, there’s an obesity ‘epidemic’, as illustrated by this Mail Online article on the burgeoning market for 80 inch waistbands. And given so many of us spend at least one third of our lives at work, it’s probably there where a lot of damage flab-wise is occurring.

But there’s also a swing towards healthier eating in the workplace. Pop along to most offices nowadays and there’ll be a fruit basket lurking in some communal area.

Go to the workplaces that specialise in young, beautiful employees – LinkedIn, we’re looking at you – and you’ll find the whole place is dripping with kale and nuts. Online companies are about as tolerant of sugar as they are of HMRC inspectors.

Mood swings

What’s the science bit, then?

‘When we’re stressed, our bodies release a hormone that tells the brain we need a boost of energy,’ Samuel explains. ‘The quick fix is to eat anything full of carbohydrates. Bad feelings like anger and frustration will seem to melt away because the sugar and new energy makes us feel better in the short-term.’

‘But it also affects our blood sugar balance, making us more susceptible to mood swings. Over time we become more reliant on sugary foods to help us deal with stress and uncomfortable situations. We become less satisfied with healthy foods alone, because we’re so reliant on sugary foods, displacing our need for more nutritious complex carbohydrates.’

So it’s a vicious cycle – the more sugary stodge you scoff, the more of it you need to function. But how can organisations change their snacking habits?

Kremed off

‘We’re seeing many examples now of employees complaining that lunchtime foods on offer aren’t healthy enough,’ says Samuel. ‘So in many cases you’re pushing against an open door when it comes to the treats. There’s also a perception that healthy food is more expensive than sticky buns or Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and so constitutes more of a luxury.’

‘Start the change by asking employees what they’d actually like as treats on a Friday afternoon – you’ll be surprised by the responses.’

Samuel suggests alternatives that could break the carbs and sugar cycle. Specifically, she’s a fan of sushi, protein balls and bars, fresh fruit and vegetable juices and big healthy breakfasts that set people up for the day.

She also reminds us that treats don’t necessarily have to be food-based.

‘It’s worth shaking up the norms and expectations by including routine screen breaks, encouraging a full lunch break, desk massage and group desk-ercise’ she adds.

Well, yes. But don’t forget to take organisational and sector cultural preferences into account before you take the dive into full on treat revolutions.

Walking into the storage depot, replacing the Yorkies with cucumber sticks and insisting Dave give Sven a back massage might seem a good idea – but we wouldn’t put money on your wellbeing being up to much afterwards.

Also published in HRVille