Co-written by Nadine Lock, People Officer and Gail Hughes, Health & Wellbeing Advisor (Tenovus Cancer Care) With the cold nights drawing in surely we’re not the only ones who’ve gone into ‘hibernation mode’ and can easily find excuses why we’re letting our gym sessions slide. After all what’s the harm in it? There’s always tomorrow, right? But how often do we find that tomorrow never comes? Slowly but surely time ticks by, the weight piles on and we feel sluggish and tired as we hunker down for the wintery months ahead. Our intentions of getting back on track seem to slip slowly through our fingers and soon enough we’re paying out for a monthly gym membership we just never use. This time of year though is the start of ‘cold and flu season’, summer holidays are over, salad lunches have been replaced by hearty soups, stews and stodge and we’re all back at our desks brewing up cold and flu germs. According to Frost and Black “Sickness absence from work is often unavoidable, but when unduly prolonged it is wasteful and damaging – to individuals and their families, employers and our wider society.” 1 So, we can see that an unhealthy lifestyle can have a big impact on us inside and outside of work. Our body is a finely tuned machine which needs to be cared for properly whatever your age, although the earlier we start the better. Whilst we all own an amazing piece of kit which will generally put up with a little less attention than a Ferrari and still keep working, if we don’t service it regularly it’s likely to be in the garage more than we want or worse still in the scrap yard. Modern life is busy, whether we are young or old, and there’s always a reason why we don’t think we have time to exercise, eat well or look after our health in general and getting sick is just par for the course. However, if we give some thought about how we can fit good health behaviours into our lives we could make wellness a normal part of things and really improve our overall lifestyle and how we function at work.
Here’s the number crunching bit
The odd sick day from work is to be expected but what if these start stacking up? Surely our managers are going to start wondering what’s happening? And after a while wouldn’t you start to worry that there’s something bigger going on and it’s time to do something about it? Human Resources industry markers of ‘good practice’ Xpert HR carried out surveys in 20152 looking at sickness absence in the UK workforce. They highlighted a pan UK business trend in increasing sickness absence levels and sickness absence costs. As we can see the increase in costs and time lost because of sickness absence is definitely something we should all be aware of in economically challenging times and a new political landscape ahead of us.
So how does all of this relate to work?
Well, looking at it from an employer’s and wider point of view research findings around sickness absence across UK businesses tell us that:
- Sickness absence rates are increasing year on year across all sectors
- Sickness absence costs are increasing year on year for organisations and the government
- Sickness absence rates are highest in less physically demanding jobs in the public & health sectors (closely followed by the Third Sector) and lowest in the manufacturing sectors
- The larger the organisation the higher the sickness absence rate
- Organisations that monitor and record their sickness absence rates are more proactive in tackling sickness absence issues and take a preventative approach
- Long Term sickness absence (4 weeks or more continuous absence) is mainly attributed to musculoskeletal conditions and acute medical conditions i.e. cancer, diabetes, stroke & heart conditions and mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression
- There is a growing trend in UK organisations for Health & Wellbeing initiatives to combat long term sickness absence
Looking into the Stats
Long terms sickness absence levels are rising and affecting the national economy and labour workforce. We can look further into this to learn about action we could take to prevent certain conditions as much as we can. So it’s important for us to identify what the issues are as well as what we can do to support people who are not working due to long terms sickness. Looking at the Xpert HR survey’s findings over 2 years from 375 HR practitioners it is clear what the most common causes of long term sickness absence across the private, public and manufacturing sectors are in the UK: Over 70% of employers reported that acute medical conditions and mental health are the reason for long term sickness absence in their organisations. This trend is also reflected in the CIPD’s 2015 Annual Survey Report3 of 578 organisation responses relating to 1.5 million employees. They also noted the same most common causes of long term sickness absence which places acute medical conditions such as cancer, heart attack and stroke and mental health as something we should be concerned about doing all we can to prevent.
Are things really all that bad?
Interestingly the CIPD survey links with a Labour Source Survey for the Office for National Statistics4 to contextualise a reported drop in short term sickness absence levels. Their findings showed that workers with management responsibility had lower sickness absence levels than those with no management responsibility. But it’s not all good news as these workers reported they don’t feel able to take sickness absence due to work commitments such as looming deadlines and this hints at insecurity about their job. Looking beyond this employers across all sectors reported an increase of workplace presenteeism (people turning up to work when they’re not well enough to do their job properly and so are less productive). Presenteeism hints at stress in the workplace and ultimately long term sickness absence and impacts on our lifestyle and overall sense of wellness. When asked about the increase in long term stress-related absences people cited workload, non-work relationships and management style as contributing factors to this type of absence. Considering that this seems to tell us we’re working more it points to people being less active and not feeling good while clocking up the hours at their desk often in less physically demanding jobs. The report also highlights that as people get older they’re more likely to develop acute and chronic health problems and UK sickness absence rates tend to increase with age with a large rise in the number of people continuing to work beyond their state pension age. So what we can see is that we’re a growing and ageing workforce who are less fit & healthy and something needs to give.
So what do the health professionals have to say about it then?
Worryingly, 1 in 20 cancers in the UK are linked to obesity or being overweight and this may well increase in the future as the number of people who are overweight increases. As a nation we’re less mobile, we eat lunch at our desks and are a ‘fast food generation’ typically addicted to salt, high fat and sugar content. Health experts have proven that exercise boosts our mood and sense of wellness which in turn helps us manage stress much better and reduces the risk of anxiety and depression. Added to this if we exercise regularly and eat healthy foods we’re likely to be sharper, more clear thinking and more productive at work whilst having extra energy and a sense of greater control over our lives. To really feel the benefit of a healthy and balanced diet and exercise programme adults need 150 minutes of exercise per week. So we need to get up from our desks, get moving and watch what we eat.
Smoking accounts for 1 in 4 cancer deaths in the UK. 4 in 5 lung cancers are caused by smoking and it has the lowest survival rate of all cancers. The chemicals in tobacco damage DNA in cells and enter the blood stream so smoking can affect the whole body. This can cause many diseases including at least 14 types of cancer, heart disease and various lung diseases. There are real gains to health and lower healthcare associated costs to be made by supporting people to quit smoking and make for healthy staff:
- After 1 year: Risk of heart disease is about half compared with a person who is still smoking
- After 10 years: Risk of lung cancer falls to half that of a smoker
- After 15 years: Risk of heart attack falls to the same as someone who has never smoked
Aside from the facts it is well known that smoking is bad for your health but sometimes smokers may not realise the full extent of the harm they are doing to their health. There are lots of very good reasons to quit this habit as smoking is the most important preventable cause of cancer in the world.
Alcohol drinking causes an estimated 4% of cancer cases in the UK each year. Reducing average alcohol intake in England by around one unit per person per day would avoid an estimated 8% of cancer deaths. So, if the after work glass of wine or beer starts creeping up on you to be a regular thing that’s when alcohol starts to give our body a hard time. Regularly drinking over the guidelines of 14 units per week for both men and women can lead to serious health problems including liver damage, a greater risk of getting cancer or having a heart attack. Besides this it will ruin your calorie controlled diet as it’s full of calories. If you drink 10 pints a week, you could be taking on more than 120,000 calories a year. And there are more calories in a single measure of spirits than in the same volume of single cream. So if you cut back you’ll start to feel in better shape and not suffer from the effects of a hangover the next day. On top of this, because regular drinking can affect your immune system, heavy drinkers can have more problems with infectious diseases, so cutting down will allow your system to fight off bugs more easily which boosts your general health. There’s a strong link between drinking quite a bit over the low risk guidelines and feeling depressed or anxious, because alcohol works as a depressant drug on your nervous system. A hangover will often include feelings of anxiety and feeling low. If you’re prone to feeling depressed, alcohol may worsen this. So, all in all being overweight or obese, smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may have a negative impact on how you feel generally, your attendance and performance at work as well as your overall lifestyle.
We’ve got the data. So what use is that then?
It’s great that we see reports that organisations have a good handle of where they stand with their people’s sickness absence. It’s even better that they’re asking the ‘why’ questions around the causes of absence and gathering data to help them deal with these issues. But just what do they do with it? The research shows that organisations are reacting to sickness issues as they happen but there is a shift in thinking towards organisations responding responsibly to the increase in long term sickness absence levels and costs and looking to put in place preventative and supportive measures. This can be seen through engaging in promoting health & well-being activities such as counselling support, flexible working options, staff surveys and stress management training and stress audits. This helps organisations to combat sickness absence and prevent it from becoming an issue in the first place in eliminating or alleviating symptoms.Some organisations also offer health checks, stopping smoking support or mental health first aiders to their staff which all points to great strides ahead in giving people knowledge and help to empower people to make good lifestyle choices and tackle the most common causes of long term sickness absence. The research findings have proven the importance of health & wellbeing as a preventative measure of long term sickness absence and rehabilitation through initiatives where the organisation can identify staff issues early on. In the long run the role of health & wellbeing is cost-effective and promotes staff engagement through organisational values being lived out and invested in and a focus in this area will reduce the impact of stress-related, musculoskeletal and acute types of sickness absence.
So, where can we go from here?
We can all use the masses of well researched public health information provided through public health initiatives because a healthy population is important to all governments. At a lower level though it’s all about a change in the way we think and the value we place on looking after ourselves as individuals and a larger workforce. It’s about getting the facts and figures and understanding ways we can change things for the better and that recognising we may need to make a change in the first place. It’s an individual thing but it’s also a wider issue that we all need to take responsibility for. Through role modelling behaviours, Health & Wellbeing schemes and clear and consistent Sickness Absence Management and Health & Wellbeing policy guidelines organisations can responsibly support, value and empower their staff. These positive measures should expect organisations to see improved line manager performance, a reduction in sickness absence costs and rates and happier and healthier staff. Employee engagement is expected to increase with a focus on staff health & wellbeing to minimise the overall impact of sickness absence. It’s also a really good way of bringing people together and making for better staff relationships but everyone needs to be on board and take this seriously for this to become part of the culture.
How do we do it?
Shifts in attitudes towards diet and exercise can easily be absorbed in the workplace. So why not build activities into everyday routine things such as a stair climbing challenge, start up a walking group during the lunch hour and socialise at the same time or even sign up for a team charity fundraising challenge. It’s important do varied activities that people enjoy to stop things getting boring. There’s lots of team-building things you could do such as getting outside and starting up an allotment if you’ve got space, grow your own plants in the office or support a local charity by having a fundraising hand car wash. Think about your carbon footprint and see if there are any cycle schemes for people to get to work. You can even train your staff as mental health first aiders as well as set up support groups such as slimming clubs or quit smoking groups as it’s easier to achieve success if you’re not going it alone.
The bottom line is it’s really up to you
Healthy lifestyle behaviour starts with the basics of regular exercise, good nutrition and mental rest and relaxation which is down to us as individuals. As we can see the numbers and guidance from health professionals speak for themselves and we know that we should look after ourselves as well as we can. It’s important to remember that no single food has all the nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and function efficiently. The key is moderation and eating different foods in the right proportions. If we’re eating more calories than we burn this leads to becoming overweight or obese. Regular exercise burns off the calories increasing our heart rate, making our lungs work harder and boosting our circulation. This will work our muscles, stimulate our organs and soft tissues and flood our body with blood and oxygen. It has the feel good factor! Exercise also maintains our bone density, joint stability, flexibility, strength, balance, co-ordination and stamina. Who wouldn’t want to avoid bone fractures and falls, whilst boosting our self-confidence and mental health? Getting it right is important for our long term health and well-being but it needn’t worry us if we follow the rules of eating a varied diet, keeping our exercise levels up and being aware of and reducing our cigarette and alcohol intake. It’s easy to get bogged down in it all and feel overwhelmed to the point of confusion. There’s loads of advice available about healthy eating, quitting smoking and what alcohol does to our bodies. Sometimes all of the info out there can be conflicting and confusing and it’s hard to know what’s in and what’s out. The best piece of advice is to make your lifestyle choices and changes work for you. It really is down to you to make positive lifestyle choices and arm yourself with the right way of doing it and muster up an army of supporters to help get you to your goal. Even small changes are a step in the right direction towards making a difference. Slowly but surely they’ll soon gather speed and you’ll discover that fitness really does improve your work and home life.