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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

What companies can do to make the workplace healthy

Desk jobs contribute to physical inactivity. Workplace stress can lead to poor sleep and bad diet. 

Most companies here do not have a system in place for promoting employee well-being. Courtesy of Zayed Sports City
Most companies here do not have a system in place for promoting employee well-being. Courtesy of Zayed Sports City

Keeping employees happy and healthy makes good business sense. Over the past few years, what was previously known as occupational health has evolved into a much larger concept called corporate wellness, which is a comprehensive approach to promoting employee well being in the workplace.

While having occupational health standards is a well-established practice in many organisations in UAE, the concept of corporate wellness has only recently caught on.

A lot remains to be done, as most companies here do not have a system in place for promoting employee well-being in the workplace. Some have loose and occasional fitness programmes, others have one-off initiatives that may have an immediate impact but fail to leverage its achievement for long-term success.

A comprehensive study on corporate wellness practices in the United States has been a much-referenced guide for companies and organisations in the West to adopt and develop a structured wellness programme in the workplace. From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works, prepared by the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the Transamerica Centre for Health Studies, makes a strong business case for corporate health programmes by documenting initiatives that work and provides plans for how organisations can develop their own programmes.

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Among the key points the study makes is that “modern workplaces frequently contribute to ill health: desk jobs lead to physical inactivity, workplace stress can lead to poor sleep and poor dietary choices, cigarette smoking rates remain dangerously high, and a number of other factors can combine to put workers’ health at risk. The good news is that workplaces also present a valuable opportunity for health promotion: scientific studies show that when done right, workplace health promotion and disease prevention programmes can improve the health of employees, reduce healthcare costs, increase productivity, and produce a positive return-on-investment, resulting in a win-win for employees and employers.”

With work occupying a significant part of most people's lives, it is imperative that companies take it as part of their responsibility to have a healthy work environment. At Daman, we have been exploring the idea of integrating health and wellness into large organisations for the last few years. Since we started in 2006, we have organised and supported a number of initiatives that encourage people to lead a healthy lifestyle. We have even launched a separate brand, Activelife, which is solely focused on getting the UAE community, not just our insured members, to be active and more aware of different health issues.

In 2012, we launched a company-wide pilot programme where we partnered with health and fitness experts to define and tailor a suitable outline for our employees. This programme provided valuable experience of the intricacies involved in what corporate wellness should be. Specifically, how to motivate staff and how to get management buy-in and support.

When organisations adopt a health-oriented strategy that prioritises the wellbeing of staff, it immediately impacts the overall employee-management relationship, which more often leads to increased loyalty. We know that a healthy person is likely to perform better and become more productive, thus lowering instances of absenteeism or even cases of illnesses.

Moreover, if the company has a health insurance policy, which is now mandatory in the UAE, a healthy workforce will be a major factor in controlling the rate of premium increases year-on-year.

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So how does a company start with the least amount of investment? First, the company must have a clear strategy that defines its corporate wellness objectives.

Once top-level buy-in is secured, work out an action plan based on the defined objectives, which should include metrics on how to measure the success of the planned programmes. Communicate the objectives and activities internally – this ideally should come from the top management to indicate its importance to the organisation.

It is better to start with simple, focused activities that immediately impact staff, for example, having weekly runs at a park or even attending Yas Marina Circuit every Tuesday, where colleagues can get together for a walk, bike ride or run at a first-class facility for free.

It is important to emphasise the need to allow staff to engage with the programme by offering the chance for them to include activities they are interested in, maybe creating a football team or even sharing wholesome recipes. Internal engagement programmes always work well when staff are able to shape them for their own needs.

Dr Michael Bitzer is the Chief Executive Officer at National Health Insurance Company – Daman

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