Fighting fit at work

by 25 Jul 2007

Australians are spending more time at work, which often results in limited physical activity, higher stress levels and poorer eating habits. Teresa Russell looks at two organisations that have taken steps to reverse these effects throughout their workplaces, with impressive results

Figures released 18 months ago by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare should be etched into every OHS and HR director’s brain. In its paper, Obesity and Workplace Absenteeism Among Older Australians, it concluded that obese workers are 17 per cent more likely to be absent from work due to personal illness or injury than non-obese workers, and for a longer time when they are. Absenteeism related to illness or injury associated with obesity may account for over 4 million lost workdays each year.

A subsequent report, Chronic Diseases and Associated Risk Factors in Australia, 2006, shows that Australians are not doing enough to guard against chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Specifically it says that more than 85 per cent of adults are not consuming enough vegetables; almost 50 per cent of adults are not consuming enough fruit; about 54 per cent of Australians are either overweight or obese; and around 21 per cent of adults smoke tobacco.

Many organisations have started to help their staff achieve a level of health and wellbeing that will ensure they don’t develop either acute or chronic conditions that will affect their quality of life. Some do it because they care, while others have purely cost-driven reasons. Regardless of the motivation, employees benefit when organisations introduce corporate health and fitness programs.

The State Transit Authority of New South Walesis a government-owned authority responsible for the operation of Sydney and Newcastle buses and ferries. It services more than 200 million passengers every year and operates 1,900 buses – the largest fleet in Australia.

Centrelink is a Federal Government statutory agency, working under the Department of Human Services. Its mission is to help people become self-sufficient and support those in need. It provides $63 billion in payments to over 6.5 million customers each year. Its division in western Victoria employs 1,200 people in five metropolitan and 15 regional offices. Its diverse range of staff includes customer service advisers, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, and a corporate support team including HR and workplace health.

Staff suggestions

Both State Transit and Centrelink in western Victoria introduced a Weight Watchers at Work program as a result of staff suggestions. State Transit’s CEO, John Lee says that in 2004, staff members at its Ryde bus depot (in Sydney) asked for a program to help them on their way to a healthier lifestyle. Since then, State Transit staff has lost 1,550 kilograms –the equivalent of 26 bus tyres is how they like to measure it! Tanya Lynch, Centrelink’s western Victoria OHS adviser says that the suggestion came from several people through this year’s staff poll on health and wellbeing.

“We have a workplace health plan that is reviewed regularly. It includes health promotion activities; injury management strategies to support people through workplace injury; including early intervention and prevention strategies. We usually run three to fourhealth promotion activities per year, so the Weight Watchers at Work program fitted nicely into that offering,” says Lynch.

Other programs at Centrelink have included pedometer challenges; ride to work and walk to work days with healthy breakfasts; seminars on winter wellness, healthy eating, office workstation ergonomics and back care; as well as flu injections every winter.

How it works

Lynch says that after receiving the suggestions, she contacted Weight Watchers at Work who then ran information sessions at a couple of sites to see if there was enough interest to start a group. There was, and the program started the following week. “We currently have 56 staff participating in the first 13-week block of meetings at five sites. Some of our sites are very small, so they don’t have the critical mass required to start a meeting there. Weight Watchers added staff from these offices on to the end of their usual community meetings, so they cold still participate,” she says.

At Centrelink, each person pays for the meetings themselves. The rate is lower than the normal community meetings. It is also far more convenient, because meetings are held at work during either a scheduled lunch or morning tea break. Participants also have an email support group.

State Transit has chosen to provide a healthy incentive to its staff by paying for half the cost of the program. Over the last three years more than 200 people across all the depots have gone through the program. There are currently 10 depots running weekly meetings “around the normal working duties of staff”.

Success stories

There is nothing more motivating than weight loss success stories and State Transit has a bundle of them. A Newcastle bus operator couple, Steve Solovieff and Karen Griffith have lost more than 100 kilograms between them. Bus operator Lisa Marquette received national recognition for her efforts after being named Weight Watchers 2006 Australian Slimmer of the Year in her weight loss division. “I am so happy with my weight loss and my doctor has told me that as well as no longer needing to take high blood pressure medication, I have reduced my chances of getting diabetes by 25 per cent. I am also sleeping a lot better,” says Marquette.

Slimmers at its Port Botany depot have shed almost 400 kilograms in total. They have recently installed a George Forman grill in the meal room and purchased a set of electronic scales that measures weight and body mass index.

“The healthy initiatives that are happening within the depots have resulted in many positive outcomes, such as morale and teamwork. Staff members also got to meet new people [through the meetings],” says Lee. Other benefits reported following weight loss have included easier movement, being less out of breath, reduced back pain and higher energy levels. Many employees have also been able to come off long-term medication for diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol.

Lynch says that in just its ninth week, Centrelink’s program can already boast some successes. “A few people have already reached their goal weight; one person has lost 9 kilograms and another is going to the gym every second day. They are just beaming,” she says.

“Weight Watchers at Work, works. It has been so much easier to attend the meetings and keep motivated with workmates. It’s also fantastic to see smiles on a lot of the participants’ faces. Although I haven’t lost a huge amount of weight yet, I have learnt some valuable lessons,” says Raelene, rehabilitation case manager at Centrelink.

Key to successful programs

Lynch says that it is important to have a coordinated approach with health and fitness programs, as well as support from the management team. She says there is no use introducing programs without getting feedback from staff first about what they are interested in. “Make sure that once you start programs, they are not forgotten. Ensure there is a review process at the conclusion,” she advises.