How to Address Inactive Lifestyles to Improve Employee Wellbeing

Physical inactivity is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion a year and combined with growing sedentary lifestyles, this is causing serious health issues in the workplace.

This is down to a combination of factors such as an increase in long-term health conditions, greater dependency on nursing care and drops in productivity often influenced by stress or employee burn-out.

Nuffield Health recently published A Healthier Workplace, a white paper commissioned by Sport England, discussing the priority areas employees should address to protect their highly-valued staff.

Here are some of the most effective strategies, based on the report’s findings, to reduce physical inactivity and get employees moving.

Understanding the terms

With more than 20 million Brits classed as ‘physically inactive’, the risk of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer is rising.

However, our research found businesses have a limited understanding of the differences between and sedentary and inactive lifestyles, making it difficult for them to devise effective strategies for employee support.

Physical inactivity is similar to but not the same as sedentary behaviour. A sedentary lifestyle is where an individual does not receive regular amounts of physical activity. So, if you sit behind a desk Monday to Friday, but do occasionally go to the gym or are more active on weekends, then chances are you fall into this category.

Research has shown it is possible to lead a sedentary life, but still meet physical activity guidance. You can do this by building up active hours to form a better health profile and reverse the negative effects sedentary behaviour has on the body.

The issue is it’s difficult to accomplish this successfully unless an individual really commits to upping activity levels around their working day or during weekends.

Deciding the best approach

A major part of our research focused on under-represented factions, including lower socioeconomic groups and those with lower levels of educational achievement. This is because they are normally less likely to meet physical activity guidelines.

One of our first discoveries from available literature was much of it contains a distinct lack of strong evidence for businesses to form robust investment cases.

Secondly, we noticed different employee demographics respond better to some methods than others, but the most effective techniques to increase physical activity were found to be a combination of workspace supervised exercise classes and group support.

These practices are more efficient because they introduce a social element to exercise. Forming bonds with relatable individuals provides many people with extra motivation to reach group health goals.

When it came to minimising sedentary behaviour, the best outcomes arose when interventions focused on addressing a key culprit; the office desk.

By experimenting with active desks and activity prompts, it was noticed employees responded to these gentle nudges positively and increased their physical movements. They also enjoyed the flexibility of being able to work standing up or sitting down when they wanted.

Taking the lead

There is a common misconception for change to occur, leaders must be vocal and bold, giving emotive, sensationalised speeches to inspire new actions. However, this will not always realise desired results.

Physical activity needs to be engrained in workplace culture from the top-down. There really is no substitute for the C-suite rolling up its sleeves and getting personally involved. Serving as a role model can be particularly effective for wellness-related programs, but the process needs to be top of every manager’s priorities to develop a culture which is then championed by trail-blazers on the ground.

A good starting point is to keep conversations around healthy lifestyles positive, focusing on the benefits increased physical activity can bring, like increasing energy, job performance and emotional resilience both at work and in their personal lives.

However, employers need to approach personal issues sensitively so employees don’t feel like their personal choices or actions are being criticised.

The benefits of an active workforce are clear, and so too are the risks associated with physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour. By incorporating a range of multi-component wellness offerings into today’s workplace, organisations and employees have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

About the author: Dr Davina Deniszczyc is the Charity Director and Primary Care Medical Director at Nuffield Health.

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