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Inactivity and the modern workforce - how this affects your business performance 08/12/2009

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Kelly Goodwin, a researcher from Bournemouth University, looks at inactivity in the workplace and how this can have a big impact on your business culture and performance.

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Kelly Goodwin, course leader, Bournemouth University's School of Services Management

Kelly is a Senior Lecturer in Excercise Physiology at Bournemouth University’s School of Services Management.

We all know the consequences of not being fit

Coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, breast and colon cancer, back pain, depression, reduced quality of life, stress, lethargy and premature death are just some of the direct consequences of physical inactivity – and it is does not make for pleasant reading!

We all know about the recommended minimum of 30 minutes moderate intensity activity a day yet only 40% of the global population actually does what is necessary to stay physically fit. If we all know about the recommendations and the health problems that can result from a more sedentary lifestyle, why aren’t we doing anything about it?

There are generally considered to be four major periods during the day in which we can all do some form of moderate exercise. Household chores and leisure activities are two of the key areas in which to do some form of physical activity but interestingly the other two key areas are linked to our time spent in the work place, both in the kind of work we do and how we get there.

Modern technology has changed the world of work to a 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week society with more and more people having to juggle responsibilities at home and in the workplace with longer hours and increased work intensity. With the pressure on it is quicker and easier to get to work via public transport or your own vehicle, and I don’t mean a bicycle. It is no surprise that after a long day at the office and an awful commute exercise is not the first thing on people’s minds once they get home and wind down.

Inactivity: not good for your health or career

As well as having a major impact on our general health and wellbeing, a lack of physical activity also has a direct impact on performance at work. Employee ill health negatively affects businesses through absenteeism and long-term sick pay, temporary staff costs, loss of production, poor retention of staff, high staff turnover and early retirement, low morale, decreased job satisfaction and industrial injuries (according to The Government paper from 2005). While it is unrealistic to think that encouraging your employees to swap their TV for a treadmill will eliminate these factors within a business, it can help.

Talking business: financial implications of health

If employers need more convincing that ideas of work-life balance and wellbeing physical activity could also be having a major financial impact on the business without anyone realising it. The Health and Safety Executive in 2004 identified that the cost of sickness absence per employee per annum equates to 3659, the total absence cost to British business as £12bn with working days lost to back pain and musculo-skeletal disorders alone costing around £9.5m.

Many musculo-skeletal disorders and causes of back pain can be prevented through exercise which strengthens muscles and keeps skeletal joints flexible and active. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety are the second most common type of work-related illnesses according to the HSE; whilst a bit more exercise will not cure these conditions it will certainly help to improve the situation and make work a bit more manageable.

When you look at the financial costs from a business perspective of lost hours and recruitment of temporary staff the statistics are painfully clear and have prompted what is hopefully the beginning of a new employer attitude towards activity within the workplace. Many blue-chip employees have realised that when they invest in the wellbeing of their employees, there are mutual benefits. Investing in workforce wellbeing is not something that is exclusive to multi-nationals and blue-chips; there is something that every employer can take from this new focus on the role of physical activity in the workplace.

Whose responsibility is it anyway?

The workplace employer has recently become a focus of attention. Do they have a duty of care to employees to become aware that work commitments are often a contributing factor to increased inactivity? Should they review work place practices to ensure that their workforce, where possible, have the opportunities to increase activity levels?

There is a case for all organisation cultures to realise that a key area for improving the amount of physical activity undertaken by the population is at work and as such there is a need to identify the extent of inactivity and areas where positive change can be made. We are beginning to see a range of support services on the market to help employers improve staff activity and reduce stress levels. However, not all solutions will work for all organisations any new initiatives introduced need to fit within the organisations culture, industry and demographic to have a chance of success.

Workforce wellbeing

The question to ask yourself is just how healthy is your workplace? Is this something organisations are even aware of? Are there ways to improve workforce wellbeing and in turn reduce the cost of absenteeism?

Gaining knowledge about workforce physical activity levels, barriers to exercise participation and motivations to improve fitness is the first step in the development of any business related intervention strategy (all of which is tax deductible of course).

Companies can benefit from the identification of roles producing higher levels of stress and an assessment regarding whether or not its workforce is meeting the required activity levels in order to achieve fitness, wellbeing and optimum productivity. In turn, this information can be used to help identify the level and nature of interventions most suitable for the promotion of more active lifestyles among the workforce.

To ensure that any interventions that are introduced are really going to have the desired effect on the workforce employers first need to understand what the problems are, what motivates their workforce and what can realistically be introduced into the business to improve wellbeing without sacrificing business performance. At Bournemouth University we are working with organisations to help them explore the different ways to improve their workforce wellbeing and develop interventions to help reduce the levels of inactivity in the workplace to ensure a happy, healthy and stable workforce.

Get your workplace healthy

If you are interested in finding out more about the wellbeing of your workforce and potential collaboration with Bournemouth University please contact Kelly Goodwin 01202 961 459  or Paul Boyce 01202 965691

Paul Boyce, co-lead for the project, is a lecturer in Sport Administration at Bournemouth University. He has 14 years experience at Bournemouth University and has been involved in the Sports Management Programme since its inception. His main area of interest is in life integration and the promotion of activity in the workplace.


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