Unhealthy employees are also affecting the health of the economy. Sonia Rach looks at fitness plans that can be put in place to help


Working a 9-5 office-based job can often create lethargic and sluggish feelings that can then have an impact on staff health. Helping people to say fit and healthy can reduce expenditure on reactive health services, as well as lowering absence rates.

Despite it being well known that good health directly affects wellbeing, employers still aren’t doing enough to encourage their staff to become physically healthy.

Dr Chris Tomkins, head of proactive health at AXA PPP, highlights where organisations could be going wrong. He says: “I think if we look at the broader angle of employee plans, historically it’s been fairly generic, and the biggest problem with corporate wellbeing plans is that they’ve made the fit people fitter and the hard-to-reach haven’t been a part of it. The issue here is understanding that they’re not hard to reach, they’re just not being offered what’s relevant to them.”

Finding the right fitness plan

There are several different fitness plans available, from wearable technology such as FitBits, to health monitoring applications and plans as simple as gym membership.

Although Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced in the Autumn Statement that gym memberships will not be available through salary sacrifice from April 2017, they can be offered as a discounted voluntary benefit. But still how do you engage the average employee who doesn’t enjoy the gym?

Andy Bowness, chief executive of fitness firm Bodireel, argues: “I think greater responsibility should be taken by employers to make it easier for employees to prioritise their health. Right now, the most generous employers will give them access to the gym, and/or some support when health complications arise, but they tend not to be proactive in facilitating support and making it easier for people to implement positive lifestyle behaviours.

“Giving out free fruit is only going to make those who already eat fruit have free fruit. Those that don’t, won’t. Health gadgets have shifted the mindsets of so many people, and that’s what we’re trying to do to make people healthier.”

Keeping it relevant

Engaging people seems to be simplest when the benefit is personally relevant. A popular approach could be something like offering staff the chance to complete a health age calculator, as this can give a sense of direction and a focus on how to improve their health.

Jay Brewer, professional head of clinical wellbeing at Nuffield Health argues that there are two key things an employer needs to do. “Firstly, they need to turn away the spotlight from the individual back to the business, and secondly, they must think about behaviour change.

“We need to understand and see what the limiting factors are because that turns away from the individual and to the business. Use the trans-theoretical model of change to find out why people don’t exercise and see who is in a contemplation stage, preparation stage and action.”

Research has shown that obesity is linked closely with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoarthritis. The medical cost of obesity to the UK economy was estimated at £15.8bn per year in 2007, including £4.2bn in costs to the NHS, according to a National Obesity Observatory (NOO) report.

These are costs to the UK economy but also have a significant impact on the cost to the employee when considering absenteeism levels or long-term illness. So why aren’t employers taking advantage of these cost-effective benefits?

James Shillaker, director at GymFlex, says: “There’s a growing disparity between what people think good health is and what it actually is. Wellbeing is perceived as good health and therefore people are mistreating it and they are suddenly coming up with all sorts of ideas about what wellbeing is – that’s where the issue is.

“To me, it’s based around physical and mental health issues and these are continuous – it’s something that occurs every day but those levels can vary every day: you can have an illness, an injury that affects your physical health, likewise issues that affect your mental health.”

Links to mental health

Further research by NOO also revealed that obese people have a 55% increased risk of developing depression, and those with depression have a 58% increased risk of becoming obese.

Shillaker says: “Bad mental health is caused by obesity, clinical depression is at its highest in the obese so there has to be a link between physical health and obesity – but people don’t understand that obesity and mental health are so closely linked.

“It’s not about health insurance, it’s not about wellbeing – it’s a commitment to improving physical and mental health. This is tackled via increased activity and better nutrition, and in my opinion, the most important thing here is gym membership.”

However, organisations still regard these plans as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’.

Brewer says: “It’s growing in importance but we are not doing a good enough job at making the business case. Every employer needs to show what the impact of being sat down too much does to emphasise this benefit. You need to do a more robust job by linking it to absenteeism rates, turnover of staff, any sort of tribunals.”

Following through

In order to assess the return on investment of these plans, a criteria needs to be established. For example, it can be work days lost or sales figures and then the mechanisms to monitor it need to be put in to place.

AXA PPP’s Dr Tomkins says: “It’s about a sustained effort and building across a company for collaborative effort. You need to take a long-term view, i.e. three years, just because it takes time. The fact is that being overweight or having high blood pressure – these things, although they may cause significant problems over time, the reality is that they are affecting the performance today.”

Yet any programme won’t be successful unless the corporate plan in place is communicated effectively. Understanding an employee’s needs through meetings, surveys or focus groups – it’s important to understand what the limiting factors and obstacles are.

The promotion of these plans needs to happen through the culture of the company where health becomes a focal point. Shillaker emphasises small changes that can be made in any workforce.

“Give people flexibility for workouts, come in late or come in early to enjoy workout time. We need to be more adaptable with our lunch hour where it’s OK to extend it for half an hour to allow people the time to go to the gym.

“Yes, they can make the time up, but I’ve never seen anyone say ‘Can I leave 20 minutes later because I’ve had some cigarette breaks?’, or when the company wants you to do extra hours because there’s a rush order in – there’s no problem staying late then. It’s a matter of urgency that the culture needs to change.”