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Opinion: Why the workplace is the obvious place to start boosting the nation's health


By Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

One area i can claim to have legitimate knowledge and experience of is marathons. 

I have participated in many, been successful in a few, and experienced both the highs and lows of the long-distance race.

Right now, the Government is showing all the characteristics of a marathon athlete as it tries to navigate the route to Brexit: a single focus, considerable pain, internal conflict, sometimes despair.

This single focus – understandable in many ways – doesn’t mean that the issues our society faces are paused. However, much as an athlete can neglect other duties during training, the Government has sacrificed focus and resource on domestic issues.

One area where this has been seen is public health. As Chair of ukactive, a not-for-profit health organisation, I champion the importance of an active society, encouraging people of all ages to embrace movement.

This is not just important for physical and mental health, but also supports productivity, social cohesion and personal development.

While we welcome the £20 billion investment into the NHS on its 70th anniversary, this cannot be at the expense of supporting people to maintain healthy lives. I believe the answer to the NHS’s future does not lie within the NHS; we need to fix how we live. 

The workplace is a key battleground, with sedentary office culture wreaking havoc on health. Many workers struggle to fit exercise into their days, leading to high rates of absenteeism and reduced productivity. In 2016/17, 1.3 million people suffered from work-related ill-health, equating to 25.7 million working days lost.

This has been estimated to cost £522 per employee, and up to £32 billion per year for businesses.

Now is the time to spark a sea-change with some sensible policies to boost the wellbeing of our workforce. Why not support smaller businesses by making it easier for them to offer employee benefits such as gym memberships or home equipment? The Treasury could broaden the Cycle to Work salary sacrifice scheme (estimated to have saved £5.1 billion through health benefits accrued through participation) to encompass gym passes and fitness products.

ukactive’s policy, ‘Workout from Work’, would see companies able to purchase gym memberships or home equipment for their staff tax-free and let employees pay for them by salary sacrifice. Its own cost/benefit analysis estimates that, over the next five years, the scheme would generate £385.4 million in annual benefits for the Exchequer, including £210 million annual savings to the NHS.

The Government needs to make the health of our workforce a priority, supporting employers to provide incentives to staff without schemes being too cumbersome or bureaucratic. It needs to engage membership organisations such as FSB, which is showing great leadership with its health and wellbeing campaigns.

The Government’s Industrial Strategy needs to connect with the needs of our workforce. It’s here that the issues of productivity, long-term social care and NHS costs can be targeted. Get this right and we can create a healthy workforce to drive post-Brexit Britain.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is one of the UK’s most successful Paralympians and Chair of ukactive. Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FSB.