Fat is an economic issue – how a spreading waistline is hitting the bottom line

Smoking, stress and alcohol take their toll too – now firms are adopting schemes to improve staff's health and boost productivity
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Being overweight, a smoker and depressed at work should become as unacceptable as breaching safety rules or doing a shoddy job. Unhealthy workers are up to 12 per cent less productive than healthy colleagues, costing firms millions, experts will warn this week.

As a result, as firms look to cut costs and get more out of a smaller workforce, more bosses are turning to staff "wellness" schemes. While some may resent the idea of bosses monitoring their health, the idea has the backing of the Department of Health which says companies can "more than reap a return on investment".

A conference in London tomorrow will hear from world leaders on the subject of linking employee health to the bottom line. Professor Dee Edington, from the University of Michigan, says shareholders in Britain need to wake up to the savings that could be made from a fitter workforce.

"Health is an economic issue. It is a business strategy about being able to stay healthy and pick up the pace. I bet nobody in a workplace says it's OK not to be safe or it is OK not to do quality work. What we have to get is health up to the same level, to say 'it is not OK not to be healthy around here because we need you working at 95 to 100 per cent efficiency'," Professor Edington said.

Despite United States companies getting an estimated return of $3 for every $1 spent of improving staff health, Professor Edington cautioned against emulating a US approach where firms bluntly told staff "you are fat". Directors need to improve the workplace first, including cutting fried food in canteens, opening up stairwells to make them a more attractive alternative to lifts, and permitting flexible working. Only then can employees be expected to change their life styles, with employers offering personal trainers to help overweight employees. "I think individual coaching is really the right way to make these things happen."

Serious illnesses linked to obesity, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke, are set to cost the UK economy £20bn over the next decade, studies suggest. It seems age plays a big part in your ability to work at your peak. "Younger people can do whatever they want," Mr Edington added. "They can drink and smoke and it doesn't affect them, but when you get to 45 you cannot do it any more."

According to Mr Edington's model, there are around a dozen health risks which, when combined, can impact directly on performance at work. They include weight, stress levels, blood pressure, life satisfaction, smoking and high cholesterol. The average healthy worker performs at around 85 per cent productivity. However, staff with three or four conditions can be 6.2 per cent less productive than healthier colleagues, and those with five or more are 12.2 per cent less effective.

Nine out of 10 UK companies already have stress management policies, but Mr Edington believes they should go further and tackle every health issue an employee has which will be costing their company money. "If you have allergies you know you are not going to be productive. If you are a smoker you probably take more breaks." A 2009 study by Kleenex suggested hayfever costs British firms £7.1bn every year in lost productivity.

In 2010 nearly 190 million days were lost to absence, costing the economy £17bn, according to a CBI/Pfizer survey this year. US research suggests "presenteeism" – where sick staff turn up for work but underperform – could cost twice the amount.

The Government wants large companies who employ occupational therapists or health advisers to offer them to small local businesses. Ed Davey, the Employment Relations minister, said: "Things like occupational health can be almost impossible for individual firms unless they are quite big. We think this sort of partnership working could be amazingly effective." A report on sickness and absence, commissioned by the government, will recommend ways to help people who are signed off sick back into work.

Half of companies surveyed were this year planning to offer personal counselling, more than a third help with giving up smoking and a quarter of companies said they would help people with drink and drug problems. While public sector employers were more likely to offer dieting help, private sector firms are more likely to provide cheap gym membership.

Some firms have already taken steps to improve staff health, including Unilever, McDonald's and IBM.

Rachel Riley, of conference organisers WPA Protocol, said the grim economic climate meant there was a financial incentive for firms to embrace something previously seen only as the "right thing to be doing". "To leverage the benefits, it has to be done properly," she added. "Programmes must be led from board level, have a clear and tailored strategy, be measured from day one, embraced by employees and ideally instilled in the DNA of all that a company does."

The workplace wellness drive has the blessing of the NHS. Dame Carol Black, the national director for health and work, said: "Employers from a range of organisations – small, medium and large, public and private – can demonstrate how proper attention to workplace well-being improves productivity, staff retention and engagement, and morale. This is about long-term commitment in an area that can more than reap a return on investment."



Additional reporting by Eshe Nelson

Simon Clark, director of Forest, thepro-smoking organisation

"I think we should be discouraging employers from taking too much interest in our personal lives, and whether we smoke or enjoy drinking alcohol. It's claimed that smokers take 'x' number of days off work, but it's very difficult to prove because most so-called smoking-related diseases are multi-factorial. I'm not denying that there are serious health risks associated with smoking, but these diseases can also be caused by bad diet, lack of exercise etc, so it's wrong to target smokers in particular. If the suggestion is that employers should think twice before they employ smokers, then they are potentially going to be losing out on thousands of very talented people. Drinking within reason and being a moderate smoker have no impact on a person's ability to do their job, and I think it would be very wrong for governments to try and encourage employers to monitor the lifestyles of their employees."

Rebecca Hirst, marketing manager at Coca-Cola

"Since I joined Coke, I've maintained a stable weight; an achievement given that there are free drinks on offer. Every Tuesday lunchtime I go to running club, and I use the on-site gym at least twice a week. Once would be my personal training session with the gym manager and then I would also do one of the classes in the studio. The biggest benefit for me is the way that I feel; I'm more energetic and productive. If I go a full week without exercising, I feel more lethargic, I don't sleep well and I find it harder to switch off. I'm more lax in my eating and I'll hit the chocolate harder. When I exercise, the benefits spiral into other areas of my life in a really positive way. I'm hardly ever ill. I've only had two days off sick in the past 12 months. At Coca-Cola we work hard: we work long hours and we travel a lot, and exercise works to counterbalance that."

Interviews: Eshe Nelson

Danger in the workplace: The health factors that affect productivity

Stress

One in five people suffers from work-related stress, with half a million reporting they have become ill as a result. The economic cost of such problems in England alone has been estimated at £105bn, a figure derived partly from the 10 million working days lost because of work-related stress in 2009/10. Physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, backache and tiredness, make it difficult for sufferers to work effectively through the day.



Smoking

An estimated 21 per cent of UK adults are considered regular smokers, according to government figures, and treating smoking-related illnesses costs the National Health Service more than £50m each week. Smokers tend to have poorer than average work performance and productivity levels compared with their non-smoking counterparts, brought about by a number of factors including poorer underlying health, more and longer breaks, and a greater number of sick days.

Alcohol

Just over a quarter of adults (26 per cent) drink alcohol on a regular basis – more than once a week. Regular drinking can have a number of effects on employee productivity. Hungover employees have difficulty concentrating, work more slowly, are more likely to make mistakes, are tired, make errors in judgement, are more prone to accidents and are more likely to turn up late. Often people who complain of hangovers will absent themselves from work completely.

High Blood Pressure

One in three adults in England has high blood pressure, although almost half of these people are unaware of this. High levels of stress can often lead to high blood pressure, but the most common contributing factors are smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and heavy drinking. High blood pressure can put you at an increased risk of major illnesses including kidney damage, cardiovascular diseases and damaged sight.

(Source: Office for National Statistics)

Obesity

Figures from 2009 classified a quarter (25 per cent) of the UK adult population as obese. Overweight and obese individuals are estimated to cost the NHS £4.2bn a year – an amount expected to double by 2050. Obesity is linked to sleep problems, which leaves employees feeling tired at work and ultimately less productive. This can be dangerous for those required to drive or to operate heavy machinery. Obesity can also contribute to back problems, which are one of the biggest causes of absence from work.

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