Facts and Figures in health promotion at the workplace – Special focus on nutrition
Fourth session in the cycle on:
Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Resources: policy complementarities within companies
Click here to view a summary of the event
2 July 2015
Member of the European Economic and Social Committee
Managing Director, Gold-Knecht Associates
It is estimated that 4% of the world’s gross domestic product is lost as a result of various direct and indirect costs, including compensation, medical expenses, property damage, lost earnings and replacement training. Besides this fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2008 that in Europe, one in every two adults, while 53% of the European population is considered overweight. Yet, obesity and overweight are not only major risk factors for a number of chronic diseases but also leading causes to morbidity and mortality, apart from decreasing significantly employees’ productivity.
With a third of a worker’s food intake being consumed in the workplace, nutrition is not only an essential health factor for employees but also for employers. Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) is therefore a key element to strengthen workers’ health and safety and to prevent huge costs for employees, employers and the whole society.
At EU level, the European Commission’s white paper on nutrition stresses that companies can contribute to the promotion of a healthy way of life at work by taking simple and cost-effective measures towards improving the well-being of their employees thereby tackling obesity.
The 11th Policies & Practices session focused on these particular aspects of nutrition at the workplace, discussing key issues on the topic, such as:
-Why promote nutrition at the workplace and how?
-How to measure the impact of nutrition on work-related diseases which have multiple causes?
-How can workers’ well-being be influenced by nutrition?
As a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Ms Madi Sharma took the floor and shared the following statistics to the audience:
-WHO estimates that since 1980 obesity has more than doubled.
-1.9 billion adults are overweight and 600 million are obese.
-42 million children under the age of 5 are currently overweight.
A challenge that needs the involvement of the whole society
The figures are a call to action on all levels and this includes corporate social responsibility (CSR). “When I say CSR”, Ms Sharma added, “I like to change the C with ‘Community’ because this is also the community’s responsibility”. In her view, so as to make the difference, there is a need to empower the people, the stakeholders, the employees, the community to really make this change.
Once the parties are all involved, the potential outcome is significant, with important falls in rates regarding obesity, heart attacks, cancers… the list of direct and indirect benefits is long. Once the costs of care, time off, various stress-related hazards are taken into consideration, there are huge economic costs that companies could save. “That’s why everybody together has to work on this,” Ms Sharma added.
David Gold, Managing Director of Gold-Knecht Associates, has over 30 years of experience in training in occupational health and safety. He agreed on the issue of cost efficiency: “In many companies that implemented Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) programmes, we see a return on investment for every Euro spent”. Typically, Mr Gold estimates, there is a 3 Euros to 4 Euros/Dollars return.
“But one of the tricks of return on investment”, he reflected, “is that it’s a medium to long term commitment”.
Mrs Sharma added that success comes only “if we can change the environment to make it more embracing and healthier – and if we can get people to understand that investment in people is indeed investment and not”.
Requirements for a successful WHP programme
Return on investment is key to convince employers but Mr Gold also recommends three ideas to make a WHP programme successful:
1.A strategic approach is required: “We need to have the commitment of management to say ‘Let’s do it, we can do it, let’s move ahead’”. A commitment, Mr Gold stressed, that does not need to cost management a lot of money.
2.A leader who is moving things forward. It does not have to be the CEO, “it can also be a trade-union, it can be someone who can advocate the programme”. The role of the “leader” is then to start building competencies among individuals. It is a sustainable way “to improve knowledge, skills and experience to promote health at the workplace”, said Mr Gold.
3.Having individuals making it happen is the third condition. Mr Gold recommends that a person – not necessarily a nurse nor a medical doctor but a fellow worker – be given the basic training to become the go-to person, the peer who can address and promote the message of the WHP programme.
The barriers ahead: austerity, proximity and communication…
When asked to identify the challenges in the field, Ms Sharma regretted that figures were stagnant, at best. “It means we are doing something wrong”, she said, adding: “I still think it comes back to education, the information”. To Ms Sharma, a lot of these programmes were brought to a halt after the 2008 economic crisis. “We have no money now to put into anything” she said. In her view, there is still a great underused potential with the EU actions.
Austerity and investment do not go well together, she lamented: “There is no investment from employers into the employees, from trade union into the fact we need innovation, we need growth, we need flexibility; there is no investment whatsoever from the policy makers”.
On the other hand, Mr Gold said we did not need necessarily to invest a lot in order to motivate people to move. “We need to be innovative”, he added. A positive attitude needs to prevail, “we have to get rid of the unhealthy fats in our diet, we have to start promoting healthy eating, and we have to start promoting more people walking”, added Mr Gold.
Methodologies do not need to be culture-specific, he added, for the simple reason that “when you get two people talking to each other you start reinforcing an idea, you start building this culture”. In a way, it is more effective to be prompted to exercise by a co-worker than by a member of the medical community. “It is a peer sort of thing, not a medical thing, it’s a top-down, bottom-up, peer-to-peer, side-to-side approach.”
To Madi Sharma, education is a key factor: people need to understand what obesity is, what diabetes is and what the consequences are. “They don’t”, she regretted, “and that hard-hitting message is possibly one of the ways we need to push forward”. Blunt messages do not mean that you dictate and impose a message though; people have to understand it is in their interest. “But maybe we could find some way of rewarding those who are actually doing a great job, instead of penalising those who are overweight which is what we are also tending to do”, added Ms Sharma.
To Mr Gold, the key is to simplify the message “key words, key messages, something easy to remember and moving forward – so we can convince the workers”, he said.
… and other issues to be discussed on the public scene
David Irvine, from the European Vending Association, pointed to that, when given the choice between nutritious goods and healthy, marginally more expensive items, people will often choose the former: pricing biases the consumer’s judgement. To Mr Gold, it is less a matter of supply and demand as of creating demand for the healthier food and then adapting the supply. He added: “the idea of at least providing information to give people or an idea so people can say “this healthy/this is unhealthy” that’s part of the education process as well. A positive cycle is triggered, as workers can bring messages home with them to their families. He continued: “If the family is also aware, it is a continual positive reinforcement that of a culture where people eat well, drink well and they move. This is also extremely important”.
From the floor, Alain Jonet, HR Director at Edenred Belgium asked the panelists: “we see more and more regulation and laws around stress or burn-out management. I’ve never seen any law or regulation promoting good health in companies”. To which Ms Sharma answered that “we don’t need a legal requirement to make changes. This is what we do over and above our legal requirement which is what is going the make the difference.”
Mr Gold added that “the law will not build the culture. It’s people that will build the culture”, he said. Therefore “we must empower people through information, in order to do things in a positive way to see change”, he added.
Mr Gold said he believed in the tripartite approach where the social partners, the employers and the workers work together to make it happen.