Healthy hearts in the workplace

Heart and circulatory disease is the biggest cause of premature death in the UK, but there’s a great deal that employers can do to help reduce the key risk factors their employees face, while at the same time encouraging greater productivity, lower sickness absence levels and better morale. Inspired by the British Heart Foundation, Vicky Powell looks at what innovative companies are currently doing to safeguard their staff’s cardiovascular health.

Counting the cost of heart disease

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), heart and circulatory diseases, collectively known as cardiovascular diseases, cause more than a quarter (26%) of all deaths in the UK — that’s nearly 160,000 deaths a year or an average of 435 people dying each day — making cardiovascular disease the largest cause of premature death in the UK.

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include:

  • smoking

  • high cholesterol

  • diabetes

  • high blood pressure

  • being overweight

  • being inactive and having a sedentary lifestyle.

Research has also suggested that excessive stress may be a risk factor. However, more research is needed in this area — it’s currently thought that the way people behave when they’re stressed in terms of eating unhealthy foods, smoking or drinking too much alcohol — is what actually leads to the increased risk of heart and circulatory disease.

What can employers do?

Most people spend a large part of their day at work and the BHF says there are all sorts of ways that employers can provide opportunities for staff to improve their cardiovascular health through the workplace, whether by means of promotional tools, workplace initiatives or corporate policies and procedures.

Getting staff moving

Workers who are physically active take 27% fewer sick days than their inactive colleagues — proof that both the workforce and the business will benefit from encouraging staff to move more often. Ideas to get employees more active could include encouraging walking, cycling or running to work by offering secure bike storage, changing areas and shower facilities in workplaces. Some companies have made use of the Cycle to Work Scheme which allows employers to provide tax-free loans to staff for bikes and cycling safety gear. Other ideas include encouraging email-free days where staff are challenged to stand up and walk to speak to colleagues instead of sending internal emails. Walking meetings are another excellent way of getting staff up and moving although these tend to be best for smaller groups of up to three people, with some planning needed so that you have comfortable shoes and water bottles to hand.

Healthy choices — eating, alcohol and smoking

Diet can have a significant impact on work performance as well as employees’ heart health. Without regular, well-balanced meals or enough water, staff may suffer from headaches, feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating. As a starting point, concerned employers can ensure access to fresh drinking water and supply information on healthy eating at work to staff. For example, keeping vending machines stocked with healthier food and drink choices and also displaying information about these next to the machine might be helpful. The BHF says many companies have also banished the biscuit tin and provide fruit instead at meetings or alongside tea-making facilities.

Besides diet, smoking is another major risk factor for heart disease — 20,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease are attributed to smoking in the UK each year. Furthermore, smoking breaks and the sick leave bill for staff who smoke is estimated to cost UK businesses £8.7 billion a year. Some employers have run work-based challenges where smokers are taken through the process of stopping smoking, with the support of a team of colleagues, and the BHF offers a number of resources, such as leaflets and “quit contracts,” to assist in this regard. The NHS’s Smokefree stop smoking app — available for download free of charge — is another option to consider.

Alcohol awareness should of course be included within an overall alcohol policy as part of a holistic workplace health programme. However, employers might want to consider other creative options such as promoting an abstinence month, encouraging staff to download a free drinks tracker app — an example is the One You app — or even holding a mocktail evening at work.

Stress management on a budget

One in five people are affected by stress at work and although the research doesn’t indicate stress as a direct cause of heart disease, it can have an impact on the risk of developing the condition.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published comprehensive Management Standards to help employers take action on work-related stress. However, some creative tips for tackling workplace stress on a budget can include simple steps such as encouraging staff to take their lunch break away from their desk or even just tidying up a cluttered office and adding some plants to make the space more pleasant and relaxing to work in. Employers might also consider sharing information on mindfulness apps such as Headspace for staff or through the website at www.headspace.com. Some businesses have also set out good practice guidelines on work-related emails after work, even turning off their servers at night to ensure staff take a break from work in the evenings.

Health checks, CPR and defibrillators

Employee health checks can be another excellent addition to the workplace health and wellbeing programme. These take the form of short confidential consultations with a trained professional and can help to identify conditions such as high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes — both important risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Conveniently, some providers will offer a “mobile” service and will come to the workplace to carry out health checks.

Every year over 30,000 people in the UK suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. However, immediate and effective cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can help double the chance of survival in some cases. The BHF points out its CPR training can take less than 30 minutes to deliver and can mean the difference between life and death.

Similarly, having a defibrillator and people trained to use it on the premises can also dramatically improve the odds of someone surviving a cardiac arrest, and purchasing this life-saving device is a key consideration in ensuring the heart health of an organisation’s workers and customers.

Case studies — safeguarding hearts at work

The BHF offers a Health at Work programme to which organisations can sign up and help staff take steps to prevent the risk of developing heart and circulatory disease. The following case studies show how some innovative organisations are safeguarding the heart health of their employees.

Bakkavor: The food manufacturer Bakkavor started its formal health programme off by circulating leaflets about the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle, in an initial focus on nutrition. The company then widened its approach to include exercise, giving out free skipping ropes to staff and setting up a 5000 steps a week pedometer challenge which led to spirited competition across the company.

Costain: After an analysis of staff health and illness showed that 13 members of the workforce had died of heart attacks and strokes in the last three years, the need to take action was clear at the construction company. The company arranged blood pressure checks for staff and afterwards all staff with high readings were referred to their GP. Some employees had such high readings they had to be sent to hospital immediately. Staff were also trained in the use of defibrillators and received a number of health talks, with the corporate catering company offering healthy food as a crucial part of the programme.

Transport for London: In order to prevent accidents and combat alcohol problems among staff Transport for London offered a comprehensive alcohol service. As part of the service, staff are encouraged staff to come forward and seek help immediately for alcohol-related issues and in return they are protected from disciplinary action.

University of Nottingham: The University’s health and wellbeing programme includes healthy lifestyle sessions which look at diet, exercise, mindfulness meditation and maintaining a good work life balance. One academic who engaged in the programme said, “This programme has transformed the quality of my life and I believe it’s made me much more productive at work.”

Making a difference

The benefits of promoting heart health often go far beyond immediate health impacts on the employees who take part in programmes. Healthy heart initiatives have repeatedly been found to achieve corporate benefits such as increased productivity and reduced sickness absence rates while also helping staff become physically and mentally fitter and improving morale.

Furthermore, some programmes affect more than just the company’s own staff — helpful ideas about diet and exercise are often passed on to employees’ families and the wider community. With around 7 million people currently living with cardiovascular disease in the UK, employers who help their staff understand heart disease — and how to prevent it — can make a massive difference, to their own workforce, the organisation itself and the wider community.