Sunday, July 21, 2024

New WHO guide for small and medium-sized enterprises highlights benefits of physical activity for workplaces

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WHO/Europe’s new guide aims to inspire health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA) within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across the WHO European Region. Every year, insufficient physical activity results in over 10 000 preventable deaths across the Region, and sedentary work environments are a huge part of this problem. Developed in collaboration with the HEPA Europe working group on workplace HEPA promotion, the new guide is designed specifically for smaller entities, and recognizes the challenges that they may be facing in comparison to their larger business counterparts.

99% of all businesses in the European Union (EU) are SMEs. They are often overlooked by health-promoting policies and initiatives and lack the resources or guidance to implement full-fledged physical activity programmes found in major corporate structures. However, recommendations in the new guide capitalize on one of the main advantages of the SMEs – their flexibility.

Too much time spent sitting down is a worrying health risk factor linked to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Together, these diseases are responsible for 90% of all deaths across the WHO European Region. Globally, increasing numbers of countries feel the need to promote more active lifestyles amid rising health concerns and awareness of the economic burdens of NCDs.

Smaller companies can embrace the change

The EU’s 2022 Special Eurobarometer on Sport and Physical Activity highlighted a concerning trend: 45% of the EU population never exercise or play sport. This contributes to a surge in health-related issues, straining public health budgets. WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. However, balancing this recommendation with a sedentary working environment is where difficulties arise.

A few facts from the Eurobarometer about sedentary lifestyles can be found below.

  • More than 4 in 10 Europeans (44%) spend between 2 hours 31 minutes and 5 hours 30 minutes sitting, on a usual day.
  • Close to 4 in 10 respondents sit for longer:
    • slightly more than 1 in 10 (11%) say they sit for more than 8 hours and 30 minutes; and
    • nearly 3 in 10 (28%) sit for between 5 hours 31 minutes and 8 hours 30 minutes.
  • Over 1 in 10 respondents among white collar workers (17%), managers (16%), students (14%) and unemployed people (13%) spend more than 8 hours 30 minutes sitting down on a usual day – a much higher proportion than among manual workers (5%).

Finding opportunities for health promotion

Addressing this issue, WHO Europe’s new guide contains practical, creative strategies that SMEs and leaders can seamlessly integrate into their daily routines to cultivate a holistic, health-forward working environment. These strategies involve transforming mundane tasks into opportunities for health; for example, organizing walking meetings, fostering a friendly “take-the-stairs” culture, or promoting cycle-to-work schemes. From kickstarting team-based fitness challenges to offering gym memberships and other wellness incentives, the guide provides a structured approach for businesses to champion the health of their workforce.

To make it easy to implement, the guide includes a list of the top-10 interventions that the evidence indicates are practical and feasible. This feature is particularly beneficial for SMEs, ensuring they can make health-promoting adjustments without disrupting their operations. These initiatives include:

  • implementing a cycle-to-work campaign with team challenges
  • encouraging active meetings with stretching and walk-and-talk formats
  • distributing information packs on walking routes
  • encouraging walking to work
  • introducing physiotherapy services in the workplace
  • including short warm-up sessions in the daily schedule
  • offering support for individual behavioural change
  • promoting the use of stairs in the workplace
  • developing actionable workplace policies.

The guide also advises on clear communication tactics. It advocates sustained, informed health discussions through continuous collaboration with health professionals, underpinned by the circulating educational materials within the company.

Thinking long-term

The launch of this guide marks the start of the conversation about fostering a healthier workplace environment, specifically in SMEs. The majority of the existing recommendations target either individuals, or larger companies with more capacity to experiment. By adopting these innovative practices, SMEs can actively contribute to a society where health and work go hand in hand, without compromising on their companies’ day-to-day performance. Long-term benefits are likely to include reduced sick leave and staff turnover.

WHO Europe’s message is clear: the shift towards a healthier workplace is not only necessary, but also entirely within reach.

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