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22 Aug 2019
by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson on the need to combine efforts to tackle sedentary workplace cultures

Traditional sedentary workplace cultures are having a negative impact on employees’ health. A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health linked sitting for long periods of time during the day to around one in 10 deaths each year in the UK, with the lead author noting that many modern workplaces “represented a significant proportion of unavoidable daily sitting time for many people”.   


While health is clearly at risk what might not be so obvious to businesses up and down the country is the cost that this is having on their bottom line. In 2016/17, 1.3 million people suffered from work-related ill-health, equating to 25.7 million working days lost, highlights government guidance Fitness at Work. This has been estimated to cost £522 per employee, and up to £32 billion per year for business – hardly pocket change.

It should therefore be paramount for every business to look at how it can better support employee wellbeing, particularly by offering its workforce more opportunities to be physically active.

Research has shown that active workers are healthier, happier and more productive, meaning they spend less time off work, and do more when they are at work.

Building cultures where employees’ physical and mental wellbeing is the top priority represents a real opportunity for employers to not only drive staff retention and morale, but also gain a competitive advantage over their rivals.

The effects of sedentary workplace cultures are felt not only by employers. Physical inactivity has been linked with more than 20 lifestyle-related diseases – including cancers, heart disease, stroke and diabetes – placing pressure on already-stretched health service budgets.

As working-age adults get older their need for NHS services will only increase, so a primary focus for government must be to ensure workers lead more active lives and reduce their risk of preventable illnesses.

There is a real opportunity here to ease pressure on future NHS and social care budgets, by ensuring every employee is encouraged to be physically active. A small investment now would save the NHS vast sums in the long run.

It’s time to spark a sea-change - that can be led by government - with some sensible policies to boost the wellbeing of our workforce. Why not support smaller businesses by making it easier for them to offer employee benefits that incentivise healthy behaviour? The Treasury could broaden the Cycle to Work salary sacrifice scheme (estimated to have saved £5.1 billion through health benefits accrued through participation) to encompass many more products and opportunities that promote activity, such as activity trackers, gym passes and fitness equipment.

ukactive is a not-for-profit committed to getting people more active, and working with any organisation to meet this goal. Its ‘Workout from Work’ initiative would see companies able to purchase gym memberships or home equipment for staff tax free and allow employees to pay for them by salary sacrifice. Its own cost/benefit analysis estimates that, over the next five years, the scheme would generate £385.4 million in annual benefits for the Exchequer, including £210 million annual savings to the NHS.

The government needs to make the health of our workforce a priority, supporting employers to provide incentives to staff without schemes being too cumbersome or bureaucratic.

That means close coordination between government and individual businesses on what works. Employers must take the lead, listening to their staff, identifying employee needs and communicating them clearly with membership organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses.  

Businesses must also be willing to work with external partners with expertise in this space, such as AXA PPP healthcare, to ensure workplace wellbeing programmes are truly high quality and meet the needs of their employees at every level.

We will not overturn decades of traditional working practice with one big policy change. This will require a combined effort from employers large and small, umbrella bodies, insurance providers and government to understand employees’ needs and support them to be active in a financially sustainable way. A large mission – but one where the benefits far outweigh the costs.

The author is Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, chair of ukactive


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