The Corporate Wellness Blog

How can staff fitness impact absence management?

November 9 2016

By Katie Scott 7th November 2016, for Employee Benefits

Need to know:

Employees who have an active lifestyle are more likely to fend off illnesses and diseases

A health and wellbeing initiative should be targeted at all staff, not just those who are already physically active and engaged with fitness

Investing in employee health can have knock-on effects on productivity, as well as an organisation’s bottom line

Long-term staff absence remains a prominent challenge within modern workplaces. Legal and General’s Workplace wellbeing report, published in September 2016, found that 17% of employees have been off work for four weeks or more because of an illness, accident or injury over the past 12 months.

Vitality Health’s 2015 Britain’s healthiest workplace report, published in September 2015, contextualises the potential impact of long-term absence on businesses, finding that the annual cost of lost productivity to the UK economy totals £57 billion. The report also highlights that healthier employees have the equivalent of an extra 30 days of productive time available each year.

Staff fitness can therefore form an essential component of a health and wellbeingstrategy if an employer is looking to reduce and manage long-term absences within its employee population.

Anna Gudmundson, group chief executive officer at Fitbug, says: “It’s probably the investment that will give the biggest impact to [an organisation’s] bottom line because very often, the workforce is the largest part of the cost base, so even increasing productivity in a minor way will have quite an impact on that most important asset.”

Domino effect

Hannah Campbell, BPS accredited sports psychologist and corporate wellness co-ordinator at HumbleFit, says: “Being fit, you’re training the body to become more resilient to everyday tasks, so active people tend to have more fuel in the tank. They have more stamina after a heavy day of meeting clients and taking on information.”

This increased stamina can be helpful in counteracting employee burnout. Another plus point to physical activity is a stronger immune system, which leads to lower instances of individuals’ succumbing to cold and flu viruses, says Gareth Goffin, park manager at British Military Fitness.

Healthier and fitter employees generally have faster recovery times from illness, reducing absence length. Seemingly minor factors, such as diet and sugar intake, can also impact productivity, due to lower energy levels and digestion issues for example, adds Gudmundson.

Other advantages of higher fitness levels include: a lower risk of contracting illnesses and diseases such as heart disease; improved mental and cognitive functioning; help with weight management; increases in overall wellbeing and mood. Team fitness activities can also boost communication and camaraderie between staff, thereby enhancing employee satisfaction in the workplace.

Strategic approach

Because employees spend such a large portion of their time in the workplace, organisations can have a huge impact on staff fitness levels. “The workplace is an excellent environment for the promotion of health because a large number of people can be reached,” says HumbleFit’s Campbell.

Initiatives that could form part of a health and wellbeing strategy focusing around fitness include voluntary benefits such as bikes-for-work schemes and subsidised gym membership. These can be a useful starting point, which can be bolstered by regular on-site fitness classes. For example, when British Military Fitness works with employers, employees are less likely to phone in sick on the days that classes run, says Goffin.

Weekly on-site exercise classes can also act as a springboard to employees forming their own personal fitness goals, and encourage individuals to take up other physical activities, adds Goffin. This positive behavioural change could have a positive impact in the workplace by generating feelings of motivation and engagement, which can act as a deterrent against absence.

Other ideas organisations could employ include starting running or walking clubs, or offering educational seminars and talks around training and fitness. Practices such as flexible working, which allow staff to go to the gym and to fitness classes at more convenient times, can further support employees’ engagement with their health.

Key considerations

A programme’s target audience is an important consideration when developing a fitness strategy, particularly because many physical activity programmes tend to attract employees who are already engaged with their fitness.

Campbell says: “We need to encourage those employees who aren’t already active because they’re the people who are taking the time off work, they’re the people who are more stressed, and they’re the people who are costing the business money.”

To counteract this, organisations could set benchmarks that are not based on absolute performance but instead focus on improving each individual’s own fitness level, says Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer. Employers should also select initiatives that will resonate with their workforce, tailoring these to their likes and dislikes.

Time-sensitive projects, such as themed days and weeks, may be effective in engaging employees in the short term, however, these need to be supported by a continuous strategy that supports long-term changes in fitness behaviours, says Bailey.

“It’s a win-win for everyone if the employee actually changes towards healthier habits and feeling better,” adds Gudmundson.

A health and wellbeing strategy has many benefits for both employers and employees. Encouraging staff to improve or maintain recommended fitness levels can be a way of tackling long-term absence levels and their potential impact on productivity and associated costs, while also having a positive effect on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness.

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