THE BLOG

Offices Need a Radical Overhaul to Save the NHS

09/02/2016 08:42 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 10:12 GMT

We are currently faced with the most inactive generation in history. Less of us move than ever before, and it's causing a big strain on our NHS.

The inactivity crisis isn't just about the decline in people playing sport or kids participating in P.E. It has come about because of the 'unintentional' activity being removed from our daily tasks. A big part of that is how our working lives continue to evolve - often to jobs where we can sit still for hours at a time.

In 2016, we are far more likely to have to file a report or complete a spreadsheet to earn a living than do any form of manual labour, chase our dinner, or chop down trees; all things which might get us out of breath.

The impact of this shift in working environments (since 1960 the number of those working in service roles has doubled, while manufacturing has halved) has had unintended consequences on health.

Namely, that sitting still for eight hours a day can have disastrous consequences on physical and mental wellbeing. The NHS is struggling to cope with the rising number of musculoskeletal problems and lifestyle-related diseases brought about by inactivity at work. Back, neck and muscle pain are already the largest cause of the UK's 131million sick-days.

Even those who exercise regularly outside of work risk cutting life expectancy by several years with a completely sedentary job.

Combine the sedentary office environment with the fact that less than half of office workers take a full lunch break, and the situation becomes graver. But it really doesn't have to be this way.

Small changes can make a big difference

At the end of January I gave the closing keynote at the Active Working Summit, outlining why getting offices more active was one of my key priorities as ukactive Chair.

It's a key priority for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the office is perhaps the best opportunity to add a few active minutes to busy days. Just 15 minutes of light activity can do the world of good. And secondly, getting workers moving more makes sense for businesses, governments and individuals themselves; it's a win-win-win.

But just how can we embed active habits into the office?

The obvious choice is for employers to offer a gym membership as part of the package. For big companies like Google, Sky and Barclays, the corporate gym offering is as standard. But since the economic crisis in 2008, the number of companies offering a gym membership has declined from 16 per cent to 12 per cent.

In tough economic times businesses want to cut costs as much as possible and reducing employee 'extras' might seem the obvious choice, but any savvy businessperson knows that you need to invest to grow. Employees who are using their free time to be active are more likely to be productive than inactive colleagues, especially if that activity comes during the work day.

Varied Approach

Businesses who take an active interest in employee health, not just by providing a membership but by providing encouragement and programming, stand to gain the most.

So I would like to see employers grasp the true value of active employee benefits in their HR strategies, recognising the need to have active employees to make their business thrive.

But there are clear areas where I can see the government making an impact, too. The state should support business (and not just the big ones) to be able to offer a gym membership without it hitting the bottom line. One way of doing this would be to expand the successful cycle to work salary sacrifice scheme in order to include fitness products, accessories and so on.

But the gym isn't for everyone, and it's not the only option. Sit-stand desks, medicine balls, fitness trackers, moving meetings and so forth should also be part of an overarching business strategy to make the office more active.

The final, most important point to make is that none of the above will work without encouragement.

Employers need to be positive and supportive of employees who are active, whether that's by providing internal health and wellbeing coaching, encouraging staff to take a full lunch break or running an incentives programme.

But working together, employers and their staff, with the right backing from government, can make inactive offices a thing of the past.