A healthy workforce is a vital asset to companies. Studies and research highlighting the direct link between health and productivity have flourished in the past decade. Workers who have access to adequate nutrition can indeed be up to 20% more productive and less prone to accidents (ILO, 2005). Nonetheless, employers too scarcely address healthy eating in the workplace.
Boglárka Bóla, EU-OSHA, Bilbao, Spain
Sylvie Dejardin, Nutri-Challenge
Jan Noterdaeme, CSR Europe
What can be changed to improve employees’ eating habits? How can employers be encouraged to enforce healthier food at work? This was the focus of the fifth session of policies and practices dedicated to the promotion of healthy diet in the workplace, on 26 June 2013.
On the panel were Boglárka Bóla Project Manager from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), based in Bilbao, and Sylvie Dejardin, nutritionist and founder of Nutri-Challenge, specialised in seminars and adapted solutions promoting balanced nutrition in companies.
EU-OSHA is dedicated to the collection, analysis and dissemination of occupational safety and health information. It runs various projects and initiatives on topics related to occupational safety & health (OSH) and one of them is the Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) project to raise awareness and provide information materials for employers and workers to improve their knowledge in health promotion and strengthen their abilities to put this knowledge in place.
The WHP joins efforts of employers, employees and society to improve the health and wellbeing of people at work, achieved through improving work organisation, work environment, enabling healthy choices and encouraging personal development, said Boglárka Bóla. It is a process where employers actively help their staff improve their own general health and wellbeing.
WHP leads to many positive consequences like reduced turnover, absenteeism, enhanced motivation and improved productivity as well as improving the employer’s image. Research showed that for every euro invested in WHP one should expect a return on investment ranging from €2.5 to €4.8 due to reduced absenteeism costs”, said Ms Bóla.
Employees’ health can have substantial impact on work, therefore raising awareness to achieve greater health should be promoted. “Around 2% of GDP of OECD countries’ public spending is indeed spent on disability benefits,” explained Ms Bóla.
She mentioned that according to 2005 Eurostat data the main causes of death in the EU are linked to diseases of the circulatory system, malignant neoplasms and external causes such as accidents and suicides. These illnesses along with the mental health problems, musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes and other diseases put a major sickness burden on European workers, companies, economies and social security systems.
However many chronic diseases–e.g. heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer can be largely prevented by a healthy lifestyle, improving the diet, enhancing physical fitness and quitting smoking.
Employed adults spend a quarter of their lives at work and the pressure and demands of work may affect their eating habits and activity patterns, which may lead to overweight and obesity according to studies (Schulte et al., 2007). Obesity itself can lead to several health effects, such as MSDs, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disorders and diabetes.
Workplace Health Promotion targets different topics such as flexible working hours, healthy eating at work (giving information on healthy nutrition, healthy canteen food or facilities to prepare own food and sufficient time to eat it). It also covers tobacco awareness, information about alcohol and drugs, mental health promotion, provision of stress reduction trainings, promoting exercises, and health monitoring covering checks of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels said Ms Bóla.
However WHP supports, but does not replace workplace risk management. Employer is not responsible for the workers’ lifestyle decision, but can encourage healthy behaviours. Wherever possible, WHP planning and interventions should be connected to risk prevention activities. WHP is only effective when occupational hazards are managed successfully, she asserted.
Indeed, nutrition is not common knowledge. Ms Sylvie Dejardin noticed that “protein, carbohydrates and insulin are all concepts that elude people because they draw their information from magazines or advertising, which can be misleading at best”.
“I really insist on having them make the connection between health and eating habits”, said Ms Dejardin. “And I can only do that by educating people through workshops” she pursued, mentioning that information is better transmitted through dialogue with the audience rather than giving them a reading list.
Benefits can arise quickly, even after basic principles are put into practise. And in this case, it is a win-win situation: employees feel better and employers have a more productive workforce.
Many expectations rest on employees’ shoulders. They have to be dynamic, inventive and motivated. Bad eating habits are a hindrance to these goals.
Long term programmes in the workplace help break the vicious circle of stress, time constraints, bad eating habits, inactivity, and poor health. “These programmes can create virtuous circles instead: a balanced diet, combined with exercise, will lead to less stress and therefore decreased absenteeism,” said Ms Dejardin.
One challenge that Ms Dejardin notices is to reach people when they fail to see they are in need. “Even participants to these kinds of conferences, such as this morning session” she noticed, “it does not necessarily make them adopters of good practice for their own good.”
Sometimes, overweight or obese people, who really need information about nutrition, do not seem to be concerned about their problem, which makes them a difficult target. Most the time, people from the audience have already an interest about balanced diet even if they do not know the fundamentals.
During the Q&A session, a representative of Prevent asked Sylvie Dejardin what is according to her the role of the employer(s) in promoting a balanced diet in the workplace. Ms Dejardin’s answer specified that workplace programmes aim more at changing bad habits of the employees rather than revolutionising employer’s policies. It is about giving them information and tools to eat well for the rest of their life: preparing their own food for lunch in a healthy way, for instance. Nettie Van der Auwera then introduced the ENWHP campaigns on health promotion and the closing 3-year joint initiative called "Promoting healthy work for employees with chronic illness"
Jan Noterdaeme, from CSR Europe, closed the talk with an update on the second session of policies & practice that took place on September 2012, on integrating adapted corporate social responsibility to SMEs.
Connecting the two sessions, Mr Noterdaeme argued that in these days of all-important data and other key performance indicators, it would be useful to bring to the fore the cost on absenteeism and presenteeism. “We can measure and price a ton of CO2 but not the price of stress’” he pursued. One of the biggest challenges is how companies link these issues more strategically to some of their financial drivers like, for instance Caisse des dépôts which identified that 25% of its former carbon footprint was involved its catering activities. In order to reach their targets to reduce CO2 emissions, they decided to offer more sustainable food options.
At CSR Europe, many initiatives came up from the collaborative ventures of companies and other stakeholders. One of them started three years ago, in the framework of Enterprise 2020 with Edenred, MSD, Microsoft and other firms. All these companies are working together on a Health Literacy Blueprint. It addresses companies with best practices and an innovative methodology to assess the workplace and workforce in terms of health literacy and health promotion. It also promotes health and wellbeing at work. The Health Literacy Project is currently running under CSR Europe’s “Skills for Jobs” Campaign and will continue under the “Sustainable Living in Cities” Campaign that is planned to start in fall 2013 in order to further promote healthy lifestyles. Jan Noterdaeme concluded his intervention on the importance of education at all stages of life to encourage better information and so better action and also the important role of mobile apps in this context.