Recent press reports about the health risks of the ‘sedentary’ lives led by office workers has brought the issue of employee well-being to the fore.

Research from On your Feet Britain, together with the British Heart Foundation, suggests that sitting for long periods of time at work is linked to a host of health problems. A campaign has been launched to encourage both employers and individuals to find ways of making their working day more active. Standing regularly, walking to colleagues’ desks instead of phoning or emailing them, taking a proper lunch break, and having ‘standing’ meetings were among the suggestions raised.

The research raises an interesting debate. At a time when the lines between work and home are becoming increasingly blurred, just where does responsibility for employee well-being lie? There are obvious advantages for employers in encouraging staff to look after themselves – fit and healthy workers are generally more productive and effective, and less likely to take time off sick.

There is a fine line, however, between encouraging and supporting people in their efforts to become healthier, and coming over all ‘big brother’. Many people (although not all) do aspire to lead healthier lifestyles – and indeed may even factor health and well-being initiatives and benefits into their decision about whether to work for a prospective employer. But it’s important to recognise that not everyone wants to be a gym bunny, and some may feel strongly that the way they chose to live their lives is a personal issue and nothing to do with their employer.

If employee well-being programmes are to work well, there needs to be a recognition that it’s a joint responsibility. So how can you, as an employer or HR practitioner, make sure you hit the right note with initiatives to encourage and support people to improve their physical and mental health?

Assess where you currently stand

The company culture can make or break a well-being initiative. The most innovative and well-meaning programme will fall flat if senior management don’t think it’s important and if line managers are likely to resist any moves to improve flexible working, reduce stress, or encourage people to take proper breaks. Ask yourself whether your existing culture will support well-being programmes or get in the way. Test the water to see what kind of appetite there is among staff for well-being initiatives. Use the reports in HR systems to look closely at absence levels too. Do you have an issue with short term absence? Are you collecting and analysing absence data so you can track the key causes of absence and identify any trends? Putting the groundwork in beforehand will help ensure whatever measures you put in place will be both relevant and effective.

Involve people from the start

Employees are much more likely to engage enthusiastically with well-being initiatives if they feel they have been part of developing them. Try using focus groups to find out what kind of initiatives people would welcome. Is there likely to be enthusiasm for lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes? Do people actively want information or advice on areas like diet, smoking cessation, or alcohol use – or will they regard that as ‘interference’? It’s important to ask the questions to make sure you are not wasting time providing benefits or activities that people actually don’t want. The answers may surprise you. Gym membership, for example, is often provided as part of employee benefits programmes – but in fact research has shown that it has the lowest average take-up when compared to other benefits such as pensions provision, private medical insurance, and the ability to improve work-life balance by buying and selling holiday.

Use role models

The message that the company values employee well-being needs to come from the top. Leaders and senior managers need to walk the talk and exhibit the kind of healthy behaviours the business wants to encourage. This doesn’t mean the MD has to suddenly start running marathons or that line managers should only be seen eating salad in the staff canteen. It’s small but subtle messages, like being seen to take a proper lunch break, leaving work at a reasonable time, and not sending emails at midnight or over the weekend. Line managers also need to be encouraged to actively support the efforts of people in their team to lead fitter and healthier lives – by providing more flexible working opportunities, for example, or respecting the fact that people want to take their full lunch hour to go to the gym or get away from their desk and get some fresh air. Some businesses have also successfully used internal ‘champions’ to reinforce well-being messages. These don’t necessarily have to be senior people. Enthusiastic people at all levels from across the business can help to inform colleagues about initiatives, and actively encourage them to get involved.

Communicate clearly

Companies have a tendency to launch well-being initiatives in a blaze of glory – and expect that employees will immediately become enthusiastic participants in the lunchtime running group/after work yoga session/corporate netball team. But if you don’t reinforce messages about well-being regularly, programmes will just fizzle out or get forgotten about by all but a minority of enthusiasts. Regular communication will help employees understand why well-being initiatives have been introduced, what the company hopes to achieve from them, and how they personally stand to benefit. At a time when everyone is suffering from information overload, people also need regular reminders about what’s on offer and what they need to do to get involved. Be creative in your communication efforts and use a variety of channels – internal social portals, intranet, posters, internal newsletters and team briefings – to make sure the message gets out to everyone. Look into the HR portal in your people management software.

Be flexible

The best well-being initiatives treat people as individuals. Not everyone’s well-being needs will be the same. Some employees may want to get involved in sporting activities or exercise classes. Others may be more interested in lunchtime briefings on diet or practical help in how to stop smoking – or would welcome the introduction of more healthy snacks in the office vending machine. The same goes for any health and well-being benefits you may provide. People need support with different things at different ages and stages in their lives. Make reward and benefits packages flexible, and try and provide a range of activities so that people can pick and choose the offering that is most relevant to them.

Above all, make it fun! People are much more likely to take an active part in whatever initiatives you introduce if they are enjoyable rather than ‘worthy’. In Hertfordshire, for example, companies have joined forces in the Herts Workforce Challenge, which among other things include a dodgeball league where staff can get physical and take part in a bit of healthy inter-company competition at the same time.

One action to take this week: How healthy is your workplace? Download the ACAS ‘Health, Work and Well-being Guide’ which includes handy checklists to help you assess how you are doing.

You may be interested in reading our guide to managing mental health in the workplace

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.