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A healthy workforce = more chance of a healthy profit... that's the bottom line.

Byline: businessofsport with Peter Sharkey

f the state of the nation's economic health was not sufficiently bad for Ius to worry about, there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that the general condition of our physical health is, at best, ropey.

One company, Mercer Marsh Benefits, has used research relating to absenteeism produced by accountancy firm PWC to create an advertising campaign in which it states that "Britain has a problem: UK workers take almost double the number of sick days as (their) US and Asia-Pacific counterparts."

According to the Department for Work & Pensions, more than 130 million working days were lost in Britain last year to sickness at a cost to the economy of PS15 billion in output terms. A further 26.4 million days were lost as a result of work-related illness or injury.

The impact of an unhealthy lifestyle is clearly highlighted in a model produced by the Oxford Health Alliance. This shows that three main risk factors (smoking, poor diet and lack of physical exercise) contribute to four chronic diseases (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, several cancers and lung disease). Incredibly, these diseases contribute to more than half of all preventable deaths worldwide.

For the past decade, we've been inundated with statistics suggesting we need to get serious about pension planning as average lifespans have increased dramatically.

However, according to research published in The Lancet recently, between 1990 and 2010, for every one year increase in life expectancy at birth, healthy life expectancy increased by just 0.8 years. Regrettably, for many folk, those additional years will not necessarily be healthy ones. Thankfully, an increasing number of enlightened companies are beginning to realise a very obvious link between a healthy workforce and an equally healthy bottom line.

Britain may lead European league tables when it comes to the incidence of obesity, stress and cardiovascular disease, but companies increasingly appreciate how much there is to gain from encouraging their employees to improve their overall levels of fitness. For many, a healthy workforce soon translates into healthy profits.

According to John Anderson, UK market business leader for health and benefits at Mercer, "the availability of good healthcare and an organisational culture that fosters fitness will translate into productivity gains."

Mr Anderson's company is one of the principle sponsors of 'Britain's Healthiest Companies', described as a "health check of corporate Britain", an annual project which places sport at its very centre.

The returns on investment are potentially enormous; a 15 per cent reduction in days lost to sickness, for example, could be worth more than PS2.2 billion in terms of economic output, a figure which excludes the savings made from people not having to make frequent use of the NHS and other medical services in later life.

"Some of the most common health problems, such as elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure, are relatively inexpensive to treat," says Mr Anderson, "but if we do nothing, these problems will become more costly.

"Intervention, based on a meaningful (corporate) health and wellness strategy can have a beneficial impact (which is) good for the employee and organisation alike."

Corporate thinking, which encouraged employees to participate in even light forms of sport or exercise, first emerged in the USA where more than 80 per cent of large companies now actively assist in helping their workers get fit. Britain remains woefully adrift of the American experience, although there are thousands of enlightened employers who understand the benefit of encouraging fitness.

Millions of others need to: it is estimated that almost two-thirds of UK workers do not undertake a sufficient amount of physical activity. The bare minimum is recommended as 150 minutes' exercise of moderate intensity a week, yet almost half (47 per cent) of working-age adults participate in less than two hours, while 14.7 per cent take no exercise at all.

The World Health Organisation maintains that lack of physical activity is one of the main causes of death and disability in developed countries.

The award for Britain's Healthiest Company 2013 went to an Americanowned clinical trials company called Quintiles, headquartered in Reading. It employs around 2,000 people across the UK, for whom it offers an outstanding 'wellness' programme. Employees can log on to the company website and discover health and fitness information, together with details of other benefits, such as online workshops, activity and nutrition logs. Quintiles' programme also actively encourages and pays employees to be physically active.

The company will award workers up to PS360 a year to engage in physical exercise.

Employees can claim the cost of gym membership, for example, provided they attend at least four times a month, while the cost of participating in activities, such as five-a-side football or Pilates classes, are also reimbursed. In addition, the company will reimburse half the cost of a bicycle or home gym equipment, ideal for those employees who work from home.

Quintiles also manages to run regular 'fit camps' in which workers sign up for outdoor group exercise sessions three times a week. The company provides on-site Pilates instructors and massage sessions, while following an online seminar focusing on cardiac health, the organisation gave every employee a pedometer to help measure how far and how frequently they walk.

The company report that 10 per cent of employees have reduced their body mass index since the wellness programme was introduced, and 92 per cent now have blood pressure levels deemed to be within an acceptable range.

Sweaty Betty (motto: "to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness") is another organisation which appreciates the benefits that accrue from encouraging workers to stay healthy. When it moved to new offices in west London recently, owner and creative director Tamara Hill-Norton insisted that a gym and decent cycle storage were essential.

The company encourages its staff to take advantage of the government's cycle-to-work' scheme, which offers a taxfree cycle for commuting. It also insisted on having access to modern shower rooms and now enjoys the added bonus of a 'blow-dry bar', eliminating any excuses for leaving the bike at home. "One of the main reasons why girls won't cycle to work is because they get bad helmet hair," says Ms Hill-Norton, "so we have hair dryers and straighteners to cure that problem."

The cost of such facilities is, in corporate terms, negligible, but they're appreciated by staff - as are the company's running club and Pilates sessions.

"Although we can't quantify it in purely monetary terms,'' explains Ms Hill-Norton, "we know we have a very low rate of sickness and a highly energetic workforce, meaning that any investment we make is more than recouped."

The success of any corporate fitness strategy is, of course, almost entirely dependent upon an organisation's culture.

If directors and senior management are prepared to demonstrate an interest in their staff's wellbeing, by participating themselves and investing in fitness equipment, there's a far greater chance of employees engaging in the programme too.

Once the returns on investment and productivity are considered, together with a reduction in the number of days lost to sickness, it could be argued that proposals for such programmes should only spend a few minutes in front of the finance director before being approved.

A 15 per cent reduction in days lost to sickness could be worth more than PS2.2 billion
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 11, 2013
Words:1216
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