Get fit fast - go to work!

Get fit fast - go to work!

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was an absurd notion for employers to be concerned with the health and wellbeing of their employees. An exception to that mentality was a Welshman by the name of Robert Owen, a successful employer famous for caring about workers’ rights.

He gave employees clean housing. He forbade their kids from working in his factories and instead funded their education and organised day care. He cut the length of his employees’ workday and prohibited the use of corporal punishment in the workplace. He did all these things, which were considered unthinkable by any self-respecting businessman at the time, and still made a fortune.

Healthy workers are happier workers.

Healthy workers are happier workers.

Photo: Theresa Ambrose

It took a long while for Owen’s progressive policies to spread. Today, it’s the norm that people don’t just go to work to work. Workplaces are now also locations at which employees are encouraged to get fit and stay well. Onsite gyms, lunchtime yoga, free psychologists, office massages, flu shots, and even services to help people quit smoking, are some of the techniques employers are using to improve their employees’ wellbeing.

In a global poll released last week by a subsidiary of Xerox, an astonishing 87 per cent of employers declared they consider it their responsibility to help employees become healthier. Other polls show that employees agree. That’s a curious trend. It implies that the onus for looking after the mind and body has shifted from the individual to the workplace. In one sense, people are allowing their quality of life to be determined by someone else.

Essentially, it's survival of the fittest, with 'fittest' referring to the inextricable link between the fitness of individuals and the fitness of organisations. But from an organisational perspective, the core driver isn't as altruistic as what Robert Owen exemplified. The Xerox survey, for example, found that the main motivator wasn’t so much the wellness of workers but the wellness of profits.


The theory goes something like this. Healthy employees are less likely to be sick, injured, unproductive or stressed out. These benefits translate into a more efficient organisation and more capable employees.

The irony is that the office can be the place that’s particularly damaging to our health. A study conducted at the University of South Carolina concluded that people who sit for more than 23 hours a week – as is the case for many office workers – are 64 per cent more likely to die of heart disease. And further research by the University College London discovered that those who work more than 11 hours a day are twice as likely to suffer from depression.

There’s other evidence, too, to suggest that artificial lighting, lack of fresh air, and the constant glare of a computer screen are deleterious to deskbound workers’ wellbeing. That’s why health professionals advocate frequent micro-breaks and the total avoidance of eating lunch at one’s desk.

Still, these negative effects were somewhat contradicted by an Australian report produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers a couple of years ago, which stated that it’s better for us – psychologically, at least – to be employed rather than unemployed. The authors note that workplaces even have a vital role to play in minimising the impact of chronic diseases within the community.

About a dozen suggestions are offered to mitigate ill health and disease, such as providing employees with wellness information, training courses, health checks, fresh fruit, a work/life balance, and weight loss programs. Some of those ideas are relatively inexpensive, able to be implemented by both large corporations and small businesses.

When he was on his deathbed in November 1858, Robert Owen was asked by a church minister if he felt as though he’d wasted his life on useless projects that didn’t catch on. Owen replied: “My life was not useless; I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time.”

If current workplace trends are any indication, he was right.

What do you think of workplace wellness programs? Leave a comment.

Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis

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