Move more, eat healthier and be a better business

Justin VarneyDr Justin Varney, National Lead for Adult Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England writes of the importance of physical activity and how employers can have a positive or negative impact on an employees attitude to physical wellbeing. 

Moving and eating are fundamental parts of daily life for all of us and the choice is ours as to how we choose to move and what we choose to eat.  However, the environment we live and work in, both physically and culturally, has a huge influence on the daily decisions we make. Just think about how hard it can be to resist the daily doughnut tray or the celebration cake in the office if you’re trying to make healthier choices with what you eat. 
It’s often easier to just say yes and take a slice.  As employers, we can really help individuals make healthier choices and see the business returns.
Unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are driving a national epidemic of obesity, but it’s not just about weight issues. 

Physical inactivity increases the risk of over 20 different diseases from some forms of cancer to type 2 diabetes and dementia. Similarly, a bad diet can be linked to high blood pressure, increased risk of cancer and premature death. 
All of these conditions are associated with sickness absence, especially for mental health and musculoskeletal issues. Conversely, becoming more physically active every day can reduce the risk of developing both conditions and improve clinical outcomes in treatment. 

As an employer, you can have a positive or negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the people who work for you. The cost of an unhealthy workforce to the UK taxpayer has been estimated at over £60 billion per year, and helping employees to make healthier choices in practical and evidence-based ways could make a real dent in this figure.  
Employees who are in good health are less likely to need time off work and are likely to be more productive   

So promoting healthier working conditions not only makes business sense, it is also the right thing to do, for employees and for their families. Around a third of adults in England are damaging their health through a lack of physical activity and one in four women and one in five men in England are defined as inactive, doing less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.  Too many of us are consuming excessive sugar, salt and fat in our daily diets and this is fueling the data showing that 7% of women and 66% of men in the UK were overweight or obese. 

This is why Public Health England, (PHE) and Business in the Community (BITC) have co-produced a new evidence-based toolkit for employers on physical activity, healthy eating and weight issues in the workplace. The new toolkit consolidates the evidence base for what works in the workplace to deliver a co-produced sustainable change in the culture and environment to support employee health and wellbeing. 

Leadership and staff engagement is key to this, but there are also practical case studies from employers demonstrating that taking simple steps can make a difference. For instance, aligning catering with the UK dietary guidelines can help eat a healthy balanced diet but does not impact on the cost 

There are also lots of opportunities for employers to synergise with national campaigns such as the OneYou Active10 programme, which provides free apps to motivate and support activity specifically targeted at the most inactive.  The toolkit also includes a wide range of case studies from different sizes and types of organisations and provides a really comprehensive roadmap to supporting staff to make healthier choices.

One of the important points we make, which is common across all the toolkits, is co-production and engagement with staff.   Research looking at the healthcare sector (WIN project, led by C3 on behalf of the RCN and Burdett Trust) found that most obese nurses would welcome a conversation with their line manager about their weight issues and had really practical and pragmatic solutions that could work in their workplace and shift work pattern. 

Working with staff to talk about what fits with their daily role is key to embedding non-judgemental solutions that work for them and will benefit them and your organisation.  Ultimately it is not our job as employers to police what people eat and how inactive they are, but we do have a responsibility to protect their health and avoid creating environments and cultures that damage their health. 

Simple, cost-effective and evidence-based steps can be implemented by businesses of every size to make it easier to be active every day and make healthier choices when it comes to food, and this pays back to individuals and the organisation they work for.  


Dr Justin Varney is the National Lead for Adult Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England where he leads the national programme on Work, Worklessness and Health. Prior to becoming a consultant in public health medicine, Justin trained as a GP and has worked in health and social care system at local, regional and national level. Justin is also a member of BITC Health and Wellbeing Leadership team.