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Fine-tuning the Health of the Workforce – An Ergonomic Quest

Ergonomic tune-ups to improve the health of employees have been shown to pay for themselves many times over in decreased absenteeism, and higher productivity and morale. Physical fitness isn’t usually wrapped into wellness programs, but employers who take one more step and introduce exercise facilities fine-tune the health of their workforce. If workplace fitness advocates achieve their aim, “the treadmill” may take on a whole new meaning in the workplace.

“Fit for work” is a doctor’s assessment that a person has no impediment to work. “Physically fit” is something more. It indicates peak capacity for work – and play. It describes the aerobic capacity to supply working muscles with the oxygen they need to perform vigorous day-long work without undue fatigue, and the muscular strength and endurance to lift and carry loads. Tasks requiring a full range of motion depend on flexibility, the third pillar of fitness.

Yes, that employee whose outsized clothing is straining at the seams is physically unfit. There is overwhelming evidence that indicates he or she is full to bursting with health risks, on and off the job. Add risk factors attached to the job, and workdays become perilous. But workers with little or no excess avoirdupois are also at risk if they shun activity whenever they can. Health experts attribute some 200,000 deaths annually from coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer to a sedentary lifestyle.

Canada’s Healthy Workplace

Canada’s Healthy Workplace Week, October 24-30, aims to educate Canada’s employers about the potential gains from introducing the three pillars of fitness to the workplace. Sponsored by Public Health Agency of Canada on Workplace Health, the web site provides tools and information to help organizations get started.

“The impetus for putting programs in place varies from company to company,” according to the agency. “For some it is a recruitment and retention strategy while for others decreasing health care costs is the goal.”

A recent poll by Angus Reid, published on the site, says employee fitness centers are one of the top three amenities employees in Canada are requesting.

Weight Wise @ Work

The British Dietetic Association launched a similar national program, called Weight Wise @ Work, in 2004. Introducing it, The British Department of Health wrote: “Many employers recognize they have a direct interest in creating an environment that helps people make healthy choices: because of corporate social responsibility or because a healthier, more engaged workforce is more likely to perform well.”

Suggestions for organizations include rewarding the employee who walks the most, arranging walk-a-thons and working with local sports and leisure centers to promote cheaper access. Holding picnics staff must walk to is one of the more novel suggestions. The program also advises on healthier food choices.

Walking Works

The United States set aside a week for a similar focus in May this year. The aim of National Employee Health and Fitness Week is to see more workplace exercise programs that encourage walking. It’s constructed around the newest federal guidelines in the MyPyramid program launched by the United States Department of Agriculture, which calls on Americans to get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week.

Most people questioned in the national poll commissioned by health insurance giant Blue Cross-Blue Shield, conducted shortly after the release of MyPyramid, say that they would like to exercise more, but 70 percent say they lack the time. Some 30 percent of employees have access to fitness programs at work, according to the poll. It shows the number of working Americans who report they get “no exercise” is two times higher among those who have no access to workplace fitness programs than it is for those who do. And these non-exercisers cite workplace programs and flexibility as leading incentives that would make them much more likely to increase their physical activity.

“The good news is – walking works, especially when it’s supported in the workplace,” said US Surgeon-General Dr. Richard Carmona when the program was launched.

In May health insurers Blue Cross-Blue Shield announced its WalkingWorks Workplace programs. Nissan North America, and several federal and state government agencies have signed up as partners. The insurer and partners plan to provide their employees with the knowledge and tools they need to set personal walking benchmarks, to track progress and establish a basic level of fitness.

The WalkingWorks announcement kicked-off the 3rd Annual Capitol Hill Challenge, a six-week House vs. Senate walking contest for the US Congress and staff.

The Fit Bottom Line
The increasing cost of healthcare in the United States is an enormous problem, according to researchers Nicholas A. DiNubile, MD, and Carl Sherman. In a paper published in The Physician and Sports Medicine in February in 1999, they pointed out that employers shoulder much of the $1 trillion yearly national expenditure for healthcare. Physicians who believe regular exercise is one of the most promising cost-containment measures have the challenge of promoting it, they say. “We know that increased physical activity – aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise – benefits our patients. In cooperation with employers, we may be able to promote exercise in the workplace, increase compliance with exercise prescriptions, and thus improve our patients’ well-being and companies’ bottom lines at the same time.”

They want doctors to use their formal and informal links with businesses and local police and fire departments to talk to executives about the cost-effectiveness of corporate fitness programs. While corporate subsidies for health club membership and financial incentives for employees who exercise are valuable, they say, developing an in-house facility is ideal because it allows employees to integrate exercise with their work schedule and clearly demonstrates the employer’s commitment to workers’ health.

They specify that the facility should be designed with a specific workforce in mind. Employees who are desk bound and sedentary will need a general program that includes all three pillars of fitness, they say, while firefighters may need special equipment that helps them strengthen the trunk, lower back and upper body.

A Quest for More Data

The two medical researchers cite many studies that indicate the benefits-cost ratios make economic sense, but a study launched in 2004 at the University of Georgia suggests the evidence isn’t conclusive. It is funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is concerned that “only a third of adults in the United States regularly participate in recommended levels of either moderate or vigorous physical activity” despite evidence of the health risks of inactivity. Federal health officials have identified workplaces as important settings for fitness programs, but want more data on effectiveness. The study led by Rod Dishman, a professor of exercise science in the College of Education, was set up to provide the data. His $1.3 million, three-year study involves a 12-week program involving 1,600 male and female employees at 16 Home Depot worksites across the United States and Canada.

Professor Dishman’s early observation? “The risk of all-cause and CHD mortality is about 50 percent lower in physically active men and women than in their sedentary peers,” he said, and “… overweight adults who are physically active have lower morbidity and mortality than normal weight adults who are sedentary.” He added that evidence suggests workplace fitness programs can be cost-effective, possibly reducing employer costs for insurance premiums, disability benefits and medical expenses. “Other possible benefits include improved workplace morale in areas such as job satisfaction, perceived organizational commitment, turnover intentions, and absenteeism, and feelings of increased energy and less fatigue.”

UGA researchers say workplaces offer unique opportunities to encourage adults and their families to increase their physical activity as most adults spend half of their waking hours at the workplace.

Canada’s Healthy Workplace web site features companies that have proven the cost/benefit ratio to their satisfaction. Canada Life Assurance Company was one of the first Canadian companies to conduct research on the bottom-line benefits of workplace fitness programs. A federally-funded research study in 1978 found that regular participants had reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, improved morale and retention. A 10-year follow-up study calculated a return of $6.85 for every dollar invested. After 23 years Canada Life’s award-winning Life in Action program continues to thrive, with over 30 percent of their 1,800 employees actively participating.

Canadian organizations use their fitness facilities as a powerful recruiting strategy, according the promotional material on the web site. “Employees think twice about going to the competition if a fitness center is on site.”

The fitness center at IBM Canada’s new software lab in Markham is one of the most popular amenities with the lab’s 2,500 lab employees and a key selling point for recruiting new talent,” according to Deborah Earley, Human Resources Manager. The doors of the Active Blue fitness center officially swung open for business in early October 2001, and it is free for employees.

Labatt Breweries wanted to make their head office move from BCE place to Toronto’s waterfront as attractive as possible. “Although we were only moving a mile south”, says Bruce Berg, HR Director, “the initial perception was that we were taking employees away from all the conveniences of Bay Street.” The addition of a fitness center at their Queen’s Quay site was a popular move and in keeping with their more informal, upbeat office. Over 65 percent of their 200 staff has enrolled in the fitness center, which opened in 2004.

The web site surveys other companies that have heard the message. Once it’s universally accepted, the physical health of whole nations could see improvement – one worker at a time.

Sources: Public Health Agency of Canada on Workplace Health; The British Dietetic Association; US Department of Agriculture; The Physician and Sports Medicine; University of Georgia

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-09-28.