Nearly 70 per cent of employees are experiencing some form of stress at work, four in 10 claim to have suffered from burnout and only about 30 per cent believe they have a good work-life balance.
New figures show that a quarter of workers surveyed spent more than six hours a day sitting, while just over half reported that work impedes their ability to take exercise. Of these, 49 per cent said they got home from work too late to exercise, while 27 per cent said their schedule changed too frequently to allow them to plan ahead.
Nearly nine in 10 employees reported working while sick and three in 10 said they had worked against the advice of their GP, according to the latest research carried out on behalf of Mater Private Healthcare Group.
Despite this, the study shows, Irish workers only spend €2 a day – less than the price of a cup of coffee – on their personal health and wellbeing.
The Healthy Working report reveals that, although while only 15 per cent admitted to not having a healthy lifestyle, poor choices in terms of diet, exercise and work-life balance were affecting the physical and mental health of many people in the workforce.
Derek Cawley, Mater Private Hospital in Dublin consultant spinal surgeon with an interest in chronic back pain, says that although there was a widespread belief desk height and office furniture had an impact on employee health, the main problem was that people were not moving around enough or taking sufficient exercise.
“Lack of exercise has an effect on overall health. It means muscles are not moving. Physical exercise also has an anti-inflammatory effect,” he says. And there is a connection with a variety of conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer and mental health.
“The overall global effect of exercise is very good for the body.” Cawley also says that sitting for long hours negates that benefit. “Not exercising is simply detrimental to your overall health. Thirty minutes of exercise a day has profound benefits for your health.” This includes mental health, obesity and cardiovascular function.
A strong advocate of active transport – walking or cycling to work or school – he also recommends the use of “standing desks”, suggests holding “walking meetings” in nearby parks instead of “stuffy meeting rooms,” and the even intermittent use a gym ball instead of a desk chair.
“If none of those are an option, ensure that your computer, keyboard and desk are positioned in a way that is ergonomically correct in order to reduce strain on the spine,” he advises.
"The 21st-century office lifestyle is not conducive to good health. Sitting at a desk or in a car for endless hours each day may sound relatively harmless, but such 'non-activities' can in fact be profoundly harmful," says John Hurley, chief executive of the Mater Private Healthcare Group. "Hours spent in a stationary position can trigger or exacerbate musculoskeletal and psychological problems and, over time, compound the risk of diabetes, depression, heart disease, and even cancer, thereby lowering life expectancy."
The study also found that more than 80 per cent of workers have felt stressed at work, while 40 per cent say they have experienced some form of burnout.
Because the link between stress and heart disease is difficult to identify and has yet to be fully understood, consultant cardiologist Mark Kennedy believes most people underestimate the impact that stress can have on the body, especially the heart.
“When we become stressed, our blood produces hormones that are useful in small doses but when overproduced, these hormones can cause damage to arteries over time,” says Kennedy.
“Recent studies suggest that constant exposure to high levels of stress is associated with higher risks of a heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation and may contribute to coronary artery disease.”
Recognising and managing stress is one of the everyday steps we can take to help maintain a healthy heart, he warns. And, as the working environment can be particularly demanding, it is important that employers and employees work together to identify factors that contribute to workplace stress, such as avoiding unrealistic deadlines, minimising the amount of overtime worked, and actively encouraging healthy eating and exercise.
Although just under half of the 500 employees surveyed as part of the study said they attended their GP for a yearly or more frequent health check, only 15 per cent admitted to having an unhealthy lifestyle. Of these 68 per cent considered themselves unfit, 54 per cent eat unhealthily, 18 per cent claim to drink heavily, and 35 per cent smoke regularly.
Just under one in five workers admitted to a poor work-life balance – of these 57 per cent found themselves constantly thinking about work, even on their days off; 46 per cent worked outside their normal working hours; 24 per cent worked on days off, and 21 per cent were “always on” in terms of being available to their employer.
Despite being offered a minimum of 20 days annual leave a year, the study showed that almost 20 per cent of employees do not take their full allocation. Of those who do not, more than one-third (34 per cent) say they are afraid their workload will increase and another third claim there is no one to manage their workload while away. Nearly 50 per cent of employees suffered from digestive problems.
People are prioritising work above health and not sleeping, eating or exercising properly, believes consultant endocrinologist James Ryan of the Mater Private Hospital in Cork.
"Good nutrition and exercise are two very important components of managing your health," he warns, adding that while Ireland as a nation has a very high rate of type 2 diabetes, the Cork-Kerry region has the highest instance of type 2 diabetes in Europe. Pointing out that research into diabetes prevention programmes had shown that adjustments to diet and lifestyle were better than any drug intervention to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes, Ryan says just 30 minutes of exercise a day was enough to have a profound effect on an individual's health.
Another significant health-related issue was sleep, says Ryan, who is the doctor with the senior Limerick hurling team. Society does not sufficiently acknowledge the benefits of sleep, which promoted muscle recovery, he says.
The study showed, however that some employers recognise that worker wellbeing is important: three in four invest in health and wellness perks for their teams such as flexible working (34 per cent) onsite exercise classes (7 per cent), with some employers (7 per cent) even providing access to massage or other holistic treatments; while when it comes to lunch, 81 per cent of employers provide eating facilities onsite, with 53 per cent offering an inhouse catering option for workers.
However, it found, most employers did not provide benefits directly related to fitness or exercise.
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