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10 ways to make your workplace healthier

Your job can play a significant part in your health and well-being. Healthy Food Guide editor-at-large Niki Bezzant looks at ways to put health at the forefront of your workplace.

If we’re aged between 18 and 65, chances are we spend a significant chunk of our time at work.

Work can be good – it provides mental stimulation and challenges, camaraderie and opportunities to be creative.

But work can also be bad for our health. For those with desk jobs, there are established risks associated with being sedentary. For example, some studies suggest sitting for long periods might even shorten our lives. Also stress and anxiety are growing mental health problems in today’s ‘always on’ work culture.

To counter this, workplace well-being is something more savvy employers are embracing. It’s not just the old concept of ‘health and safety’, often framed as things we ‘have’ to do with a roll of the eyes. It’s about taking a true interest in, and responsibility for, helping the people within an organisation improve their health and then stay healthy.

This makes sense on many levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out in its Healthy Workplaces Model for Action: “Promoting health at the workplace is both the right (ethical) and the smart thing (adds value) to do”.

Creating a truly healthy workplace has benefits for both employer and employee. People who feel valued and well are more loyal, productive and stable. Workplaces committed to well-being tend to retain staff for longer and have less absenteeism. These things can directly translate to a better bottom line, which every business wants.

The benefits to employees of having an employer committed to their well-being are clear. When we feel good, we are happier. When we’re happier, we work better. So how can both employers and employees embrace well-being and work to create a truly healthy workplace?

Tips for employers

Identify the issues

Individual workplaces have different health issues. Talk to your people to find out what their biggest health problems are. US company Chevron has ‘health stations’ to check on employees’ blood pressure. Australian company Lendlease surveyed its employees and found mental health issues were a big problem for its construction workers.

What you can do: Find out what your workplace health issues are and work from there.

Get everyone’s buy in

The WHO says: “A healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers”. So, once you know what the issues are, talk to your people again to plan the best ways of addressing them. A so-called ‘co-design’ process is more likely to produce long-term, effective wellness strategies than a ‘top down’ approach.

What you can do: Involve your people in coming up with wellness solutions.

Make it part of the culture – don’t be token

Well-being should be embedded in your company’s culture – it’s more than just posters and a fruit bowl. It includes physical, mental and emotional health. Melbourne’s Monash University has a large “Wellbeing at Monash” programme. Staff well-being is a core value of the university, and well-being is a key performance indicator (KPI) reported quarterly to senior management.

What you can do: Make well-being a core value of your organisation.

Be consistent – do it like you mean it

As a core value, well-being should extend to all aspects of your business, every day. Watch out for inconsistencies that can contradict this. It’s great having a Wellness Day for staff, but if everyday morning teas still include sausage rolls and cake, it’s likely undoing the good work. Nelson Marlborough District Health Board removed all sugary drinks from its hospitals after dental surgeons pointed out the disconnect: they were performing multiple surgeries on small children every week, removing teeth decayed by sugary drinks.

What you can do: Think about how to include well-being in every part of your business, every day.

Small things can make a big difference

Well-being programmes don’t have to involve huge investment or grand scale. Lots of small things, integrated into your business and consistently done, can make a big difference. Nelson Marlborough DHB employees can ‘donate’ their sick leave to a bank to help out others with health challenges who have used up all their leave. Lendlease offers ‘well-being leave’ for employees to take whenever they need it for health maintenance.

What you can do: Get feedback from your people on easy-to-implement ideas. Start small, but start.

Create a healthy environment

An environment that makes it easy for people to keep up with healthy behaviours makes for long-term success. Want more people to bike to work, or exercise at lunchtime? Provide safe and secure bike storage, good showers and lockers. If you have a cafeteria, look seriously at the food available. Are healthy ‘options’ enough? Consider making all the food on offer healthy food, so it’s a no-brainer for people to eat well at work.

What you can do: Make it easy for people to be healthy in your workplace.

Tips for employees

Speak up

If you can see ways (small or large) your bosses can make it easier for you and your workmates to embrace wellness at work, let them know about it. Most employers are aware of the need to incorporate well-being into the workplace, and they’ll probably be only too happy to hear from you.

What you can do: Share your healthy ideas with colleagues and decision makers.

Buddy up

Whether you work in a large company or a small one, it’ll be easier to stay motivated and make healthy change stick if you’re working with others. Team up with a buddy (or three) to share healthy lunches or take exercise breaks. Get up from your desks and take walking breaks together. Remind each other to drink water or do some breathing exercises.

What you can do: Team up with other like-minded workmates to make healthy work habits stick.

Use technology

There are heaps of useful apps that can help you build well-being into your working day. Try a mindfulness app for a short meditation exercise, or a stretching app to help you do some back and neck stretches. There are also programmes you can load on to your computer (if you’re allowed to do this at work) that can remind you to take regular breaks. And Healthy Food Guide offers a comprehensive Workplace Wellbeing programme too.

What you can do: Make use of clever apps to help you think ‘healthy’ all day.

Get away from your screen

If you work in an office, it can be easy to spend the whole day cemented to your chair, staring at a screen. Apart from the risks associated with sitting for long periods, this can make us feel stale and unproductive. Make sure you get away from your desk for lunch and tea breaks. Even 10 minutes in a different space, having a chat with a colleague, can refresh your brain and eyes and help you think more clearly. Eating in front of a screen can easily lead to mindless eating too, so try to eat al fresco rather than al desko.

What you can do: A change of scene can reboot body and brain.

First published: Mar 2018



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