09 September 2015

Zumba: a cure for our sick note culture

UK workers, across all sectors, continue to neglect their health and wellbeing

By Brett Hill, Commercial Director, The Health Insurance Group

The NHS, it would appear, is a sick workplace. Employee absence due to illness costs the organisation £2.6bn a year while data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows 4.25% of working days were lost last year.

It is not the only place that is feeling unwell. A recent health study we conducted with Wellbeing People revealed that too many of us are eating the wrong things, drinking in excess and not getting enough exercise. Employers need some encouragement to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff.

The study into the health of the UK’s working population examined the four ‘proximate’ causes of preventable ill health: poor nutrition, lack of exercise, alcohol excess and smoking, and found that workers needed to do more to reduce the risks of lifestyle-related illnesses.

Of the 16,808 people studied, one in five men (20 per cent) said they never ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day*. Women appeared to be more aware of the importance of a balanced diet as a lower 15 per cent said they didn’t consume the recommended portions.

The World Health Organisation says: a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables a day can lower the risk of serious health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Only 18 per cent of men said they consumed their 5-a-day. Women fared slightly better with 23 per cent getting their 5-a-day.

Being active and physically fit has enormous health and wellbeing benefits but research reported that almost one in five (19 per cent) men and one in four (24 per cent) women didn’t exercise.

Adults should be aiming to be active for approximately 150 minutes a week and 38 per cent of males and 31 per cent females  are doing this. Physical activity is important in the management and prevention of stress and many common diseases so it is worrying there is a stubborn hardcore who do little or nothing in the way of activity, placing them at risk of serious ill health later in life.

Alcohol consumption is high among the working population with almost a third (30 per cent) of men and a quarter (26 per cent) of females drinking regularly. Given current concerns about problem drinking, nearly 60 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women claim to sometimes consume more than 6 drinks per day, with 12 per cent of men and 7 per cent saying they regularly did so.

Smoking has been in decline among the general population for the last 20 years, and a fifth (18 per cent) of men and a seventh (15 per cent) of women said they still smoked regularly.

Alcohol is 10 per cent of the UK burden of disease and death**, making alcohol one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the UK, after smoking and obesity. Heavy drinking has actually declined in recent times but it seems many of us are reaching for drinks – a sign of more pressured-times?

The world of work is looking pretty unhealthy but the NHS has started its own fight-back with the recently announced £5m initiative to keep staff healthy and at work.

The health improvement programme will include numerous schemes, including serving healthier foods and running Zumba and yoga classes. Specialist support is planned for GPs to help many avoid burnout. In addition, organisations will be asked to provide staff access to physiotherapy, smoking cessation and weight management services, as well as sports or exercise classes. Health checks will also be introduced for mental health and musculoskeletal problems - the two biggest causes of sickness absence across the NHS.

The NHS is certainly leading by example and I think these proposals are both impressive and admirable in their ambition. In time the NHS will boast a health and wellbeing scheme  equal to its scale and efficiency.

We should all be taking our lead from the NHS, as health has to be the responsibility of every business. We’ve also been trialling company-funded, voluntary weight loss programmes including an annual employee health screening programme and healthy-eating cookery sessions. With just a modest investment it can make a huge difference, boosting employee engagement and satisfaction levels, which in turn reduce rates of employee absence and turnover.