Debate Room Are keep fit schemes in work a great idea or majorly intrusive?

Leo Varadkar has announced a new initiative for public sector employees. – but is it a good idea or a bad idea?

HEALTH MINISTER Leo Varadkar has announced a new initiative to get public sector workers healthier.

The scheme will require public service employers to develop a ‘healthy workplace’ policy to promote the physical, mental and social wellbeing of employees.

But is this really a good idea? We asked two commentators to tackle the issue…

‘If school is the place to catch kids as they put on the weight, work is the place to help adults lose it.’

– Aaron McKenna

Ireland will be the most obese country in Europe by 2030, according to a recent report on modelling obesity by the World Health Organisation. We might have a different self-image as a nation than that of a bunch of chronically overweight people going around Wal-Mart in mobility scooters over in Florida, but that appears to be our destiny on current trend.We need to fight this battle on every front we can, and our workplaces will become an increasingly health-conscious place as the very tangible health difficulties of obesity begin to bite. People who are overweight or obese – such as 89% of us are expected to be by 2030 – develop a variety of illnesses that will keep them off work sick. The more overweight you are, the less productive you can be in general; as the mind doesn’t work at peak efficiency when the body is wallowing in weight.

A full-time employee will spend a third of their waking hours every week in work. If school is the place to catch kids as they put on the weight, work is the place to help adults lose it.

As the State is the biggest single employer in the country, with 288,000 people on the payroll, it can both positively affect the lives of a lot of workers and help set a standard for other organisations to follow. The public sector may have a bad reputation for its work practices, but I genuinely believe that it should be a model organisation in terms of the supports and even perks provided to employees. It should attract the best people with the best standards, though of course also employ some of the hard-nosed performance practices of the best companies also.

The scheme being introduced will mandate public sector organisations to provide voluntary health related activities for employees. These could range from quitting smoking groups to exercise classes, and simple measures like organised walks. Often people simply need a nudge and an opportunity to change, and the provision of opportunities in the workplace will make it easier to participate.

I think there’s a case to made for making workplace activity – as strenuous as meeting the goal of walking 10,000 steps a day – mandatory, given the massive bills that our health service and employers are going to be running up in future dealing with the fat population. I’m all about the personal freedoms normally, but I don’t think it’s fair on other taxpayers or your employer if fat-related illness causes sick days. Public or private sector, it’s unreasonable to expect someone else to pick up the real bill for a love of ten pints and two dinners on a Friday night (don’t deny it) with a fry to soak it all up on Saturday.

I’m looking forward to seeing Dublin 2 clogged with armies of public servants on jogs at 5.30pm every evening. We should join them.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.

“Curing a sick note culture is not easy task but let’s keep bosses out of our fridges.”

– Lorraine Courtney

Health Minister Leo Varadkar has just announced a new initiative to get public sector workers healthier. Of course he isn’t just being nice; the government have an eye on the bottom line. We all realise that the reason for tackling employee health is more to reduce absenteeism; we know they don’t really care about our cholesterol.The cost of sick leave in the public sector has been called “unsustainable” and is costing the State about €430 million, according to internal Government documents published last summer in the Irish Times.

The rate of sick leave for the estimated 300,000 employees in the public sector was almost twice that of the private sector. Sick leave rates were highest in the Garda and health services – where between 10 and 12 days are lost per employee annually. Under plans to revise sick leave, drawn up as part of the State’s EU-IMF bailout, management in the public sector agreed to try to reduce sick leave by €25 million in 2012. However, the internal Department of Public Expenditure documents showed that, during 2012, sick leave in most areas of the public sector remained more or less the same.

If you’re not healthy, you should be doing something about it yourself. But should your employer help you take the initiative? There are no quick fixes and a multi-billion dollar industry has grown up overnight in the US, selling wellness programs to well-meaning employers. Today, more than 90% of all large American employers report offering one for employees. Some of these programmes are excellent and welcomed by employees. It can be nice for an employer to support exercising and quitting smoking.

But badly designed programs are not so nice, as Matthew Woessner learned. The associate professor received an email in July 2013, from his employer, Penn State, instructing him to take the online questionnaire called a “Health Risk Assessment,” reporting on his personal life and habits and if Woessner refused, he would lose $1,200.

This could happen to you, according to Al Lewis and Vik Khanna in a disturbing book, “Surviving Wokplace Wellness… with your Dignity, Finances and (Major) Organs Intact”. The book is so laugh-out-loud hilarious you may wonder if it’s really serious, but actually it’s also a sobering exposé of hazards in the worksite wellness trend in American business. What it warns is that poorly-designed wellness programmes can violate the very essence of good management practice: namely the fundamental principle that management should focus on employee performance, not employees’ personal lives.

You see, ultimately healthy living is a personal thing and the best cure for absence, they say, is someone being afraid of losing their job and turning up to work regardless of whether they are ill. With the economic uncertainly, it’s no coincidence that the rate of absence remains relatively low in the private sector. The threat of losing your job is, perversely, working to drive down absence more than anything else.

Curing a sick note culture is not easy task but let’s keep bosses out of our fridge.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

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