This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.
SPECIAL REPORT / A growing number of European companies are trying to create a healthier work environment for their employees, by encouraging them to get out of their chairs during work hours.
As sedentary lifestyles become the norm, investing in employees’ health can prove beneficial in the long run, the reasoning goes.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends taking 150 minutes week of moderate intensity physical activity per week. But this target seems like wishful thinking for many Europeans, whose normal day involves driving to and from work and sitting in front of a desk.
About two-thirds of Europeans spend between 2.5 and 8.5 hours sitting each day, according to a Eurobarometer survey from 2014. This is five percentage points more compared with 2002. And more than 10% sit for more than 8.5 hours.
Steven Blair, professor in the departments of Exercise Science and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina, told EURACTIV that while most people are aware of the importance of regular physical activity, many are still not active enough.
What people are less aware of, he said, is that prolonged periods of physical inactivity also increase the risk of developing mental illness, such as stress and depression.
“Regular physical activity appears to reduce the risk of mental health disorders such as depression, and it also is an effective treatment for depression. We also now have some evidence that an active lifestyle appears to reduce the risk of dementia as we age,” Blair said.
Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP), pointed to the fact that in today’s busy world, stress and anxiety levels can be high.
“Mental illness is socially debilitating and associated with suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness,” said McGuinness, who co-chairs the MEP Heart Group in the European Parliament.
“Research clearly indicates a positive association between exercise and psychological health. Physical activity promotes emotional well-being, including improvements in depressed mood, anxiety and stress, and self-esteem,” she said.
But while the importance of exercise and sport has received a lot of attention from policymakers, she points out there is no clear policy response to physical inactivity as such, saying the matter cuts across a number of policy areas from education to health to workplace to environment.
Employers step up health initiatives
Some companies have realised the importance of exercise and have taken steps to improve their employees’ wellbeing. Not only for the benefit of the workers’ health, but also because it can give them better financial results in the long run.
In April this year, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) paid tribute to over one hundred European companies that have made an effort to combat stress in the workplace.
One of the companies was Schuberg Philis, an ICT company in the Netherlands, which received an award for devoting attention to both the physical and mental health of employees. Employees have access to a certified in-house therapist and a physiotherapist, and participation in sports activities is particularly encouraged together with healthy eating.
The focus on health among employees has meant that the company’s sickness rate in 2013 was 0.9%, an extremely low rate in the ICT sector. This is saving Schuberg Philis €229,000 in absenteeism costs per year.
Satakunta Hospital in Finland was commended by EU-OSHA for its “workday activity” programme launched in 2013, aimed at increasing physical activity among staff. The campaign started with a basic examination of the physical condition of employees and now more than 1,500 employees have enrolled.
The improved health conditions at Satakunta Hospital are visible at the bottom line.
Sickness absenteeism was reduced by 9.1% between 2013 and 2014 (equivalent to a saving of almost €1.5 million) and the hospital’s fitness-for-work planning produced net savings, for 2013 alone, of over €1 million. Meanwhile, there was a decline in the number of accidents at work (by as much as 25% annually).
A study carried out among employees showed that work satisfaction also improved.
Going the extra mile
Another company that won recognition is the Danish Lån & Spar Bank, which received an award for a its ‘bank in movement’ programme, an initiative which goes the extra mile when it comes to safeguarding employees’ health.
Employees first go through a general health checkup, where their general levels of fitness and Body Mass Index (BMI) are measured. The bank then gives tailored advice on employees on things like diet, physical activity, sleep or how to quit smoking.
“The fact that we have been result-oriented when it comes to our employees’ mental and physical well-being has been a good investment for us,” John Christiansen, the bank’s CEO, said in a statement.
In six years, sickness absence among employees has been halved; workers’ fitness has improved with the number of obese falling more than 20%. Meanwhile, 93% of the employees say they are ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ to be working at the bank.
“We are more involved in our employees’ health than what is normal, but we do it to help and the employees are allowed to reject our proposals,” Keld Thornæs, assistant director at the bank, told Finansforbundet.
“My job is to make profit for the shareholders and in doing this, the employees become the biggest resource. Therefore, they need to be in the best shape. I know it sounds cynical to put it this way, but as long as this is at a voluntary basis, I don’t see a problem with it,” he said.