Helping staff play a healthy game of life

Edmund Tirbutt
Monday, January 13, 2014

With colds and flu, not to mention post-Christmas hangovers, so prevalent in January, there are few times quite so likely to remind printers of the havoc that absenteeism can play with a workforce.

Indeed, according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth 2013 Absence Management survey, it now costs an average of £595 per employee per year. However, there are a range of steps that even the smallest employers can implement to improve the chances of their employees remaining fit and healthy. And most of the inexpensive ones hardly constitute rocket science.

Just as it is important to do preventative maintenance on equipment, encouraging employees to take exercise, eat properly, remain a healthy weight and take a moderate approach to caffeine and alcohol can boost their immune system and make them less susceptible to physical and mental illness. It can also improve sleep and enhance energy and efficiency. 

Pamela Gellatly, chief executive of occupational health risk consultancy Healthcare RM, says: “People don’t understand the importance of good nutrition, but it’s essential. Your body won’t perform without it. Good nutrition doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.”

Experts stress the importance of having food that’s in season, with plenty of fruit and vegetables and good quality meat and fish, but not too much sugar. They also highlight the dangers of consuming sweets, biscuits and sandwiches as they are full of the wrong types of carbohydrates and will lead to a sharp energy drop around an hour after eating. 

Taking exercise outdoors is emphasised as being particularly important, even during the cold weather. So there is much to be said for encouraging employees to go for walks, perhaps by initiating a competition involving pedometers and step counting, or offering them the chance to participate in a cycle to work scheme. Outdoor workplace challenge activities can also prove surprisingly popular. For example, 18 of ESP Colour’s 76 employees have signed up to participate in hardcore obstacle course Tough Mudder in October 2014. 

ESP Colour also offers all employees free gym membership and reports that around 70% take this up. Many printers will not be able to afford this, but they should still be able to offer employees favourable terms on gym membership simply by organising a group discount. Gyms are often prepared to negotiate discounts of around 15% with local employers. 

Take a stand

Healthcare RM’s Gellatly even feels printers should consider implementing standing desks as a “form of activity” for staff who have to sit down all day. She says: “A standing desk can stabilise blood glucose levels, burn calories and help with weight loss. People who use them report feeling more energised and experiencing improvement in their musculoskeletal function.”

Fulfilling legal requirements to carry out workstation assessments for conventional desks should also be a high priority because back problems are a major source of absenteeism. A particular problem with SMEs is that many staff use laptops, meaning that their computer is often at the wrong height.

A great deal of free online information is available on all these issues but if an employer has a couple of dozen staff or more, such important messages can be imparted cost-effectively by employing a consultant to deliver educational sessions. Although the fees involved may sound expensive, the fact that a single session can involve a large number of staff can make them good value. For example, workplace health consultancy EnergiseYou charges £400 for delivering an hour-long workshop or webinar but this can be attended by as many staff as the employer wants.

EnergiseYou managing director Oliver Gray says: “SMEs often say improving performance and engagement via health is for bigger firms, but any company with around 20 staff upwards can benefit from doing this to keep absence low and ensure staff are motivated and happy. If you don’t have a positive and healthy culture you will lose staff, and it’s not cost-effective to continually retrain. I feel the retention consideration is actually even more important than reducing absenteeism.”

Some medium-sized printers in fact demonstrate commendably broad ranges of workplace wellness facilities. Webmart, for example, offers all its 46 employees free access to: an in-house gym; a face-to-face stress management service; a massage chair; a Power Plate intensive self-massage workout; a meditation room with free instruction; a cycle to work scheme; fruit bowls every day and food on Fridays, which it tries to keep reasonably healthy. 

All Webmart employees also receive company-paid private medical insurance (PMI), that can enable them to receive treatment at a time convenient to them and their employer in the comfort of a private room. And senior managers are provided with a comprehensive health screening every three years. 

Chief executive Simon Biltcliffe says: “Your body isn’t simply a vehicle to get your brain from one meeting to another and there has to be a link between how well you feel and how well you work. So anything we can do to improve employee wellbeing we will do, and our absenteeism rates are so low we don’t even measure them.”

Northend Creative Print Solutions, which has 43 employees, offers all a small discount on a gym 200 yards away, but focuses primarily on mental rather than physical health issues. It prides itself on having got rid of a blame culture and on giving its employees a sense of empowerment to make their own decisions. 

Northend strategic development consultant Dorothy Betts says: “If people feel more empowered, they enjoy work more and are therefore more productive and motivated, producing positive energy as opposed to negative. Because our people are consulted about company decisions at everyday levels there is an atmosphere of mutual respect, so this reduces stress and we have very little absence.”

The company’s employees are offered free coaching across the board and most have access to stress counselling via the employee assistance programme (EAP) available on its voluntary cash plan scheme – which has an 80% take-up rate. 

Cash plans cover a range of minor medical costs, such as optical and dental check-ups and treatment, alternative therapies and specialist consultation fees, but the fact that they normally include EAPs, which offer telephone-based – and in some cases also face-to face – counselling, is arguably the most significant benefit for combating absenteeism. According to the CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey 2013, two fifths of organisations have seen an increase in stress problems in employees over the past 12 months.

Early intervention

Paul Shires, sales and marketing director at cash plan provider Westfield Health, says: “An analysis we’ve done showed that thousands of patients with mental health conditions were waiting for more than six months for counselling and talking therapies on the NHS. It also showed that people diagnosed with anxiety and depression have five times as many hospital admissions and 10 times as many sick notes as the average. So the secret is to get in early before it’s too serious, and an EAP enables you to do exactly that.”

EAPs can also be available on group PMI and income protection schemes, which pay employees a regular income in the event of being unable to work due to injury or illness. But smaller firms tend to regard both products as too expensive. 

In the case of income protection this is largely a misconception because it is possible to obtain low-cost versions that pay benefit for a maximum of two to five years – as opposed to until retirement. These still normally include both EAPs and rehabilitation services, then intervention after only two to four weeks to help get employees back to work, effectively providing free outsourced case management.

Paul Avis, marketing director at group income protection provider Canada Life, says: “With schemes available for as few as two people and with total premiums as low as £500 a year, a limited-payment income protection scheme can provide a plethora of benefits at a cost that is usually less than a quarter of a percent of payroll. Only the bigger printing companies tend to have income protection, but in our view it should be the primary benefit purchase for any size
of business.”

More medium-sized printers have PMI, although some restrict it to senior staff. While costs are likely to be between £50 and £100 a month per scheme member, the product can easily pay for itself in reduced absenteeism costs and improved retention rates. Ryedale Group, which has 91 full-time employees, makes it available as part of a management package to half a dozen key individuals. 

Ryedale commercial director James Buffoni says: “We need to look after our core team as we don’t want them off when we need them. We have had several claims and I have actually used the scheme for seven knee operations myself during the last 20 years. It has undoubtedly saved time and I feel the environment of a private room helps you to recover more quickly, and some employees have even managed to work remotely from these rooms. PMI means that you know the timescales and level of care involved, which removes stress.”

Of course smaller outfits may well be right in feeling that such a PMI scheme is beyond their budgets. But they needn’t despair of taking steps to boost their workforce’s wellbeing and morale. Prevention, as the old saying goes, is far better than a cure. And EAP counselling, gym membership discounts, cycle to work schemes, workstation assessments and even just ensuring employees get their five a day, can a go a long way to making a workforce fighting fit and ready to tackle 2014.  


Employee nutrition

A great way of reminding people to eat well is getting an external nutritionist to come in and deliver a talk. Check out:

  • AC Health and Nutrition offers a range of nutrition seminars including ‘Good Mood Food’, ‘How to Sustain Yourself Through a Busy Working Day - The Healthy Way!’ and ‘Eating for Energy and Good Sleep’. The consultancy also offers demonstrations to show employees how to make tasty, nutritious meals and snacks in the workplace quickly and easily. Visit
  • Vital Nutrition can run workshops and seminars with your staff or help you develop a whole workplace health strategy. The team can also provide cookery classes, blood pressure checks, on-site seated chair massages and physiotherapy. Visit
  • The London Nutritionist offers workshops including a Weight Management programme which costs £800 for six, one-hour sessions covering how to manage eating in the canteen and restaurants, recipes and how to keep weight off once it’s gone. It also runs Stress and IBS, and Healthy Heart workshops. Visit www.the

Office fruit boxes

We spend up to 60% of our waking hours at work so need ideally to eat three of our five a day here. Offering employees free fruit is a cost-effective way of ensuring this happens, and will be viewed as a generous perk by staff. Check out:

  • Fruitdrop’s boxes start at £20 for a box of 50 pieces, with free delivery across the UK. The company can also deliver office milk. Visit
  • The Fruit Box delivers to offices in Yorkshire. Fruit is selected from the Yorkshire Produce Market with boxes starting at £21 for two 45-piece boxes. Visit

Shift workers

Remember that if you have staff working shifts at unusual or irregular times, they’ll need to take particular care to eat well. Working night shifts can interfere with your body clock. Digestive processes slow down in the evening and overnight so what an employee eats on a night shift may be out of sync with what their body is able to process. Fats will not be cleared from the blood stream as efficiently and blood sugars will not be regulated appropriately. That is why some foods that you tolerate well during the day may trouble you if you have them late at night. So staff should:

  • Choose lower fat milk products like skimmed milk and yogurt, and lean meats, boiled eggs and peanut butter. 
  • To prevent indigestion or ‘heartburn’ they should consume lower fat foods that are not fried or too spicy. 
  • Watch their portions. Working shifts can lead to eating a large meal twice, first at work and then again at home. This can amount to too many calories.
  • Eat meals according to time of day, not their shift. If they start work in the afternoon, they should have their main meal in the middle of the day, rather than in the middle of their shift. If they’re working nights, they should eat their main meal before the shift starts, preferably between 5pm and 7pm.
  • Have a late night pick-up. A snack with a little protein, such as a small piece of low fat cheese or half a small wholegrain bagel with peanut butter, will provide sustained energy late at night. A late night pick-up will help keep staff alert when their body is programmed for sleep.
  • Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine stays in the system for up to eight hours which can make it difficult to fall asleep later. It’s best to have caffeinated drinks before or early in a shift.

To avoid shift work sleep disorder, which can cause ulcers, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and heart disease, employers can:

  • Try to avoid giving staff a number of night shifts in a row by frequently rotating shifts. If you can’t, it’s easier for staff to adjust to a schedule that rotates from day shift to evening to night rather than the reverse order. 
  • Keep the workplace brightly lit to promote alertness.
  • Advise staff to avoid bright light on the way home from work and not to stop to run errands.
  • Advise staff to use heavy blackout blinds or curtains to block out light when asleep during the day.

Workplace challenges

Turning eating well and exercising into a game or competition is a great way of motivating staff to be healthy. How about getting a team together to take part in a local 3k or 10k run? For the more adventurous you could work together towards an extreme challenge such as Tough Mudder 2014, the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, or a cycle ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Some other external schemes to check out are:

  • Workplace Challenge aims to promote sport and physical activity across England’s workplaces by awarding points for physical activity logged, and then prizes for targets hit and in regular random draws, the idea being to just generally reward participation. Visit
  • 10,000 Steps UK invites workplaces to sign up to record their steps with a pedometer and to record other physical activity for 10 weeks. As employees log their steps online, they’ll get to explore famous UK landmarks. Visit
  • The Global Corporate Challenge offers a 12 month programme for as little as £49 for 20 employees. The first part of this is a step challenge encouraging staff to walk at least 10,000 steps a day, tracking their progress as their steps take them on a virtual world tour. The programme also includes tailored nutrition advice and various seasonal pushes such as GCC Sprint, where staff select a virtual opponent to try and outrun, out-walk or out-swim. Visit

Or you could simply devise your own fun challenges. How about:

  • A challenge to drink 3 litres (2.2 for women) of water during the working day.
  • Counting the stairs you’ve climbed each day to see who can avoid taking lifts most often.
  • Using calorie counter and nutrition phone apps to compete to hit your daily targets.

Workstation assessments

You have a legal obligation to ensure desk staff’s workstations aren’t going to cause them health, most notably back, issues. Some external companies to consider for a workstation assessment are: EnergiseYou (, Personal Health and Safety Consultants (, Physio Solutions, based in Angel, London (, Ergotherapy, based in Harrogate and Leeds (


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