Exercising the right to health in the workplace

Workplace workouts are an attempt to root out obesogenic environments - that is places that encourage obesity, Alison Healy reports…

Workplace workouts are an attempt to root out obesogenic environments - that is places that encourage obesity, Alison Healy reports

Would you like a massage before you tackle that report on your desk? Or perhaps an hour in the company gym would revive your drooping spirits in the afternoon?

As problems such as heart disease and obesity cause increasing concern, a growing number of companies are actively trying to improve the health of their staff.

Companies such as Intel and Microsoft have led the way with on-site gyms and a range of in-house therapies. Weight Watcher classes are becoming more common in many larger companies while "chip-free days" and "fruity Fridays" ensure that staff canteens are delivering the same message.

Employers have recognised that staff ill-health has major implications in terms of lost skills, increased demand for early retirement and staff replacement costs, says Ms Maureen Mulvihill, health promotion manager with the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF).

She says our increasingly sedentary lives have even created a new phrase - an obesogenic environment. Our environment promotes obesity, from the food we eat to the desk-bound jobs we do.

Ireland has the highest rate of coronary heart disease in the EU for people under 64. Obesity levels rose from 11 per cent of adult males in 1998 to 14 per cent in 2002, while the figure for women increased from 9 to 12 per cent.

When the IHF launched its workplace programme over a decade ago, it encouraged companies to incorporate exercise into the daily work routine.

However, there was little interest from staff or employers at that time. Now Far Eastern cultures and some US companies are showing the benefits of such programmes.

Some companies encourage staff to start the day with gentle exercise while others set a time for staff to carry out stretching exercises at their workstations.

The IHF is now looking at revisiting the idea. More than 10,000 workers have already taken part in its "lifestyle challenge" since that programme began in the 1990s. It encourages staff to take regular exercise that they enjoy, and is supported by activities and colleagues in the workplace.

Intel's 3,500-plus staff in Leixlip are spoiled for choice when it comes to healthy activities and these are not confined to the company gym. More than ten people are employed in Intel's occupational health unit and a team of medical staff is available around the clock for staff to consult.

Physiotherapy, massage and Reiki are all available on-site during working hours.Weight Watchers classes are also run during work hours and more than 100 staff members have used this opportunity to shed some pounds.

Every six months, all office and manufacturing staff are assessed to ensure that their job is not giving them a pain in the neck. The position of the telephone, the size of the computer mouse and the height of the chair are all checked so that employees do not develop posture-related problems.

Intel will also refer staff to confidential counsellors and pays for the first six sessions of counselling, whether the complaint is work-related or not.

Mr Mark Rutherford, Intel's environmental manager, says the company benefits by having a healthier, less stressed workforce.

"Work in itself is stressful enough so it helps if stress can be relieved, even in a very small way. This is all about trying to strike a happy work-life balance," he says.

"If you have to go into town for an appointment, it's a nightmare trying to get there on time and trying to get parking," he says. "But if staff can get these appointments out of the way while at work, then their time off is worth more to them."

"It's a win-win situation for all," says Mr Aidan Brady, Citigroup Dublin's country corporate officer.

Citigroup, at Dublin's North Wall Quay, offers staff an on-site gym as well as a holistic therapy and treatment centre and a range of health initiatives.

"We believe that a healthy work environment is very critical to our employee's well-being. The provision of health services on-site benefits both our employees and the company," he says.

Staff certainly see the benefits at Microsoft Ireland, in Sandyford. Therapies such as reflexology, aromatherapy, chair massage and Reiki are provided free of charge and can be taken during work hours. "These appointments are always full," says Mr Clive Evans, senior human resources manager, at Microsoft Ireland.

Similarly, if someone would like to spend an hour in the newly-revamped company gym during work, managers will facilitate this. "At the end of the day, it provides us with a healthy pool of staff. It's a small investment for a very good return."

Over in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Schering Plough has been encouraging staff to become healthier since it took on the IHF's lifestyle challenge five years ago. More than 150 out of its 450 staff have taken part in the challenge during that time.

A hill-walking club has grown out of the health initiative and employees' families and friends have even joined in.

A walk has been mapped out around the factory site so staff can exercise during their breaks. Pilates, yoga, soccer, basketball, and running are just some of the exercises available to staff.

Staff are happier and more productive when they are healthier, says Maureen Mulvihill, of the Irish Heart Foundation. "The feelgood factor is a definite outcome and this has been internationally recognised. Companies are more aware of this now and are being more supportive to staff."