Business Essentials: 'Can we find a way to stop sick-worker syndrome?'

A firm that offers travel opportunities wants to expand the health horizons of its employees. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

aving a healthy workforce is good for business. Apart from reducing absenteeism, there is increasing evidence to suggest a link between good performance and employees who are in good condition. The Harvard Medical School recently found that the most healthy quartile of a workforce is seven hours more productive a week than the least healthy quartile.

I-to-i is one of a growing number of companies that, in recognition of this, is attempting to enhance the well-being of its staff. But, also like many firms, not all is going to plan.

"You could say we're a company full of good intentions, but things often get in the way of actually doing any exercise or eating what we should," says Sarah Horner, public relations manager of the organisation, which provides opportunities for volunteer travel and training for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

"We would like advice on what we can do to encourage all our 50 employees in our UK office to become really healthy."

The Leeds-based company has already experimented with a few strategies. "About six months ago, we introduced an initiative called 'Fruity Friday', which means all employees get free fruit on that day," explains Ms Horner. "It's gone down really well: when it arrives, people are informed online and, almost immediately, they're off to the kitchen to get some.

"The problem is that the rest of the week, we get through enormous amounts of sweets and biscuits."

At least staff at i-to-i are eating less bad food than they used to. "At one stage we had a tuck- box full of chocolate, which seemed like a really nice way to reward staff. But it was almost too successful, and people were picking from it all the time.

"In the end, some staff members actually asked for it to be removed because they couldn't resist temptation," she adds.

The firm has also tried introducing weekly Tai Chi classes to combat stress and improve well-being. "But they were arranged before work and unfortunately they had to be cancelled because not enough people could attend. Some travel long distances so they couldn't get here early enough, while for others the class clashed with the school run. I would like to have attended, but couldn't because of the timing."

Rather more successful was the Caledonian Challenge, which a fifth of the staff recently undertook. "You walk 54 miles in Scotland, through the night," explains Ms Horner.

"We also arranged a 14-mile hike recently, which we did for the charity we support, and even more people did that - probably because it was far less daunting. Nevertheless, it was still under half the workforce."

Above all, i-to-i would like to know what measures it can introduce on a daily basis, as well as on occasions, to get staff feeling their best. It would prefer to concentrate them in three key areas - eating, exercise and stress release - and it would like the initiatives to be long-term where possible.

www.i-to-i.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Dr Frankie Phillips, registered dietitian, The British Dietetic Association

"Changing bad habits is hard, but making the healthy choice easier is one solution. 'Fruity Friday' is a great initiative, but why only on a Friday if it is so popular? It's surprising how well fruits like grapes, strawberries and mini tomatoes, and dried fruits like raisins and sultanas, go down as a replacement for biscuits - even in a meeting. So i-to-i could introduce them daily as a fruity break.

"This can be an economical option if the firm asks a local supplier for seasonal fruits. And why not have a tomato-growing competition in the office? Others have.

"Coffee and tea in moderation are not as dehydrating as people often think, but I'd also recommend providing water as. dehydration can affect our ability to concentrate. If the firm invests in a water cooler, it should place it at the far end of the office, so that staff have to take a mini-break to get a drink.

"Finally, as an incentive, I'd suggest joining the BBC Big Challenge Workplace Award Scheme ( www.bbc.co.uk/bigchallenge)."

Clive Pinder managing director, vielife (the well-being service)

"I-to-i should formalise its programme beyond a series of ad hoc events. First it needs to collect data. A confidential 'Health Risk Assessment' enables individuals to analyse and understand their health.

"The data can then be aggregated to benchmark individuals and the company against peers, and develop behavioural-change programmes that will have the greatest impact on business drivers.

"These assessments should be available to all staff and tailored to individual and group needs. They should help people to help themselves and be focused on lifestyle issues like sleep, managing pressure, nutrition and physical activity.

"Most important of all, i-to-i should promote good health with the same marketing skills used by tobacco companies to promote cigarettes and food companies to promote salt and fat. Senior management must also practise what the company preaches."

Neil Adams, managing director, Neil Adams Corporate Health

"Lunch-time activities such as a walking club will encourage employees to take a break from their desks, helping to relax tired limbs and reduce eye strain and stress levels.

"Appoint one of your employees as a 'wellness leader' to set a reasonable pace and keep the group together.

"Give staff a large exercise ball to sit on at their desks, instead of a chair - building up slowly to 15 to 30 minutes each day. This will improve posture, breathing technique and encourage the flow of oxygen to the brain.

"To help replace bad habits with good, make space for health promotion items on your bulletin boards and hold monthly seminars on stress management, food and nutrition. And keep employees motivated by providing them with a wall planner to plot their health routine and list their accomplishments."

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