Active employees and the bottom line

Active employees and the bottom line

This year we’ve released three Wellbeing Index reports. These 2000-person surveys act as a barometer of the nation’s wellbeing at home and at work.

They always throw up something interesting, often unexpected. Knowing how much sedentary lifestyles affect our health, we chose to focus on physical wellbeing this time.

We were expecting to see that we aren’t active enough as a nation – though maybe we thought a few more than 16% of us would be meeting the guidelines. What we weren’t expecting was the reason why.

A worried nation not taking action

When the survey went out, our working theory was that people didn’t know how much exercise they were supposed to get; perhaps they weren’t aware of the NHS guidelines that recommend 150 minutes per week for adults or how bad a sedentary lifestyle can be. But that’s not what we found.

This Wellbeing Index revealed that education is not the issue: the majority of people (54%) know the NHS guidelines and 60% were worried about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle.

But despite understanding the guidelines and fearing the risks, only 12% of the people we surveyed said they were actively trying to reduce the amount of time spent sitting.

So, why aren’t we doing more? Our partners over at the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) have taught us a lot about the importance of understanding motivation and barriers — looking for the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.

When we asked about the biggest barrier to being more active, almost a third (32%) said lack of time. This was closely followed by low energy (31%) and low mood (25%).

What really struck me reading about those barriers is how much of a vicious circle it is: low energy and low mood can both be boosted by physical activity. That means if we can solve the time issue, we’ll eliminate the three biggest barriers to exercising more. Just think what an impact that could have on our health as a nation.

A responsibility and an opportunity

The need for employers to step up came through so strongly in the survey. Almost seven in ten (67%) people told us they expect employers to support their physical wellbeing.

In reality, less than half (47%) have access to basic facilities — only one in four (26%) have access to changing rooms, 20% have somewhere to park a bike, 10% have an on-site gym. There’s a significant gap between what employees now expect and what they’re getting.

What made for even more frustrating reading is that HR professionals see the value of supporting physical wellbeing, they’re just not getting buy-in from senior leaders.

Almost three quarters (74%) of HR professionals agree that physical activity reduces absenteeism, but three in five experience money barriers.

That reflects badly on senior decision makers. Yes, budgets are tight. Yes, that means making the case for proactive spending is hard, but it’s the right thing to do — for the business as well as your people.

Investing in physical wellbeing pays back

We all recognise that people are a business’s biggest asset. Knowing how much the office and work day contribute to sedentary time or feeling like we’re too busy to exercise, we have a moral responsibility to do more.

But investing in physical wellbeing also makes good business sense. A recent report by John Lewis Partnership and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) forecasts that by 2025, the cost in lost productivity and absenteeism will rise to £2,605 per employee, per year. Few businesses can afford that kind of expense.

Whether it’s a digital platform, exercise classes, a meeting room that can double up as an Active Space or a state-of-the art gym, investing in physical wellbeing at work will cost money. But it pays back.

Practising what we preach

One study found that physical activity programmes at work reduce absenteeism by up to 20% and physically active workers take 27% fewer sick days.

Knowing this, we are practising what we preach. Right at the entrance to our Sheffield HQ you’ll find our newly opened Active Space, a spin studio, and a classroom to build understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind getting active.

For the significant proportion of our team that work remotely, we’ve introduced a digital platform, allowing people to access top-quality educational content and fitness classes wherever they are.

It was a significant investment, and I don’t apologise for that — it’s already starting to have an impact.

We went from a workforce where half of us exercised once or twice a week with a significant proportion that didn’t exercise at all. That was our starting point.

Just a month later, 61% of our workforce have visited the Active Space and you’ll often find a waiting list for some of the most popular of our 10 weekly classes.

There’s been a cultural impact too. When I walk round the office I hear people talking about the classes, about what they did, what was involved — occasionally complaining their legs hurt! Fitness has become a normal part of our conversations in the office, and that is what will really make this change sustainable.

It’s brought us closer as a team too — people who usually work in different departments, on different floors meet in the classes, they encourage each other and build those cross-team relationships that turns a company into a community.

You learn more about the people you spend so much time with. I now know that Salma in the Connect team is always first on the spin bikes; Rosie in HR is really good at pull-ups; and our young Finance apprentice, James, has a talent for putting together a mean, Youtube-inspired workout.

A worthwhile investment

Was that investment worthwhile? Not a doubt in my mind.

Rather than just looking at this year’s P&L, I call on all business leaders to calculate how much absence truly costs their business and then look at whether they can afford not to prioritise their team’s physical wellbeing.

There’s also a need for the government to get involved here. For other initiatives that support employee health, such as cycle to work schemes, companies can offset these against corporation tax. Why not do the same with other investments in physical wellbeing?

With 1 in 6 deaths in the UK being attributable to sedentary lifestyles, this is very much a national, government-level issue. Providing tax incentives will minimise financial barriers to supporting physical wellbeing, enabling more and more small businesses to provide the right support for their teams and decreasing the impact on our health as a nation.

Take a look at our Wellbeing Index for more on these important findings, and get in touch with one of my team if you want to hear more about how we help our team stay active and ideas on how you could do the same.

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