True or false: Test your nutritional knowledge to help promote a healthy and productive workforce

Nutrition should form an integral element of workplace health and wellbeing strategies.

Poor nutrition, after all, can increase the risk of many chronic conditions, from heart disease to diabetes.

The impact of obesity on business has been well documented with an estimated cost to the UK economy of £47 billion a year – and a study by Willis PMI Group found that nearly a third of employees believe their employers should help them lose weight.

Nutritional advice, wellbeing schemes and healthy canteen food can all play an important role in achieving this, helping protect the long-term health of businesses by reducing sickness absence and promoting improved productivity.

Nutritional myths and dietary misinformation are commonplace however, often sabotaging employees’ best efforts to live fit and healthy lives.

Test your knowledge with our ‘true or false’ quiz – and get the facts.

1/ Carbohydrates make us fat


NHS Choices points out that eating too many calories, whether carbs, protein or fat, will contribute to us gaining weight.

The school of thought that carbs are bad, however – perpetuated over recent years by low carb diets – can be misleading. Gram for gram, carbohydrate contains fewer than half the calories of fat and, in a healthy diet, they are a vital source of energy.

It should be remembered that not all carbs are the same. Sweets and cakes, for example, have limited nutritional value while containing high levels of sugar and calories that can increase the risk of weight gain and tooth decay.

Carbs found in fruit, vegetables, pulses and starchy foods, however, can be particularly beneficial to our health, providing us with a variety of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

For employees that exercise regularly, carbs also fuel the body’s muscles and aid recovery.

2/ Eating more frequent meals burns more calories


A theory is frequently championed that the more often we eat, the more our metabolism is stimulated, which results in more calories burned.

However, most research studies suggest this is a myth. A 2009 review* of 179 abstracts found “no significant relation between meal frequency and weight loss”. Nutritionists tell us that calorie intake is what really matters when it comes to weight loss.

Despite this assertion, it is generally believed that eating more frequently throughout the day helps maintain our energy and blood sugar levels and reduces our hunger cravings. For employees, this may translate to improved levels of concentration, job focus and productivity.

*Association between eating frequently, weight and health, Nutr Rev. (2009)

3/ Science shows that eating breakfast helps us lose weight


Dr James Betts, a senior lecturer in nutrition at the University of Bath confirmed to the New Scientist that there is a lack of scientific evidence to back up the claim that eating breakfast boosts our energy and kick-starts our metabolism.

This suggestion is rather the result of powerful advertising campaigns.

A University of Bath study* published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that skipping breakfast did not affect fat levels or make people gain more weight. It did however show that eating breakfast could encourage obese people to exercise more.

“If weight loss is the key there is little to suggest that just having breakfast or skipping it will matter,” said Dr Betts. “However, based on other markers of a healthy lifestyle, like being more active or controlling blood sugar levels, then there’s evidence that breakfast may help.”

* The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2016)

4/ Good hydration helps us concentrate


Poor hydration can affect employees’ memory, attention, concentration and reaction times.

Research* from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory and published in The Journal of Nutrition found that even mild dehydration alters a person’s mood, energy levels and mental function.

The National Hydration Council provides guidelines for the types of fluid to drink. Water is the only fluid they recommend drinking “plenty” of as it contains no sugar, calories or additives. The European Food Safety Authority advises a daily intake of 2.5 litres of water for men and two litres for women.

*Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women (2011)

5/ Science has linked eating fruit and veg with greater creativity


Researchers at the University of Otago have looked into whether frequent fruit and vegetable consumption can be linked with this state of mind – known as eudaemonic wellbeing.

The study*, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, found there was a link between the two, with a healthy diet being related to “other aspects of human flourishing, beyond just feeling happy”. People who ate more fruit and veg were also found to display greater curiosity and more creativity during their day-to-day lives.

While the researchers acknowledged more research is needed, they suggested that Vitamin C might be the magic ingredient. Vitamin C is related to the production of dopamine, “a neurotransmitter that underlies motivation and promotes engagement”.

Fruit and veg can also reduce the risk of health problems such as heart disease, strokes and some cancers. The ‘five a day’ campaign is based on advice from the World Health Organization.

*On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life (2015)


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Debunking the 5 biggest back pain myths

It is believed eight in 10 people in the UK suffer from back pain at some point in their lives.

This stat is hardly surprising. Back pain has long been a concern for employers and the CIPD Absence Management Survey 2015 revealed it is among the top-five causes of both short and long-term absence in the UK.

But despite their familiarity, many myths are perpetuated around back problems, which may hamper proper diagnosis and treatment.

Here, we attempt to unravel five of the biggest myths related to back pain, from the belief that ‘rest is best’ to the idea that you can ‘slip’ a disc.

Rest is best

Bed rest is often recommended as a step to reduce acute back pain by reducing pressure on the spinal discs and stopping any mechanical stresses that may be causing irritation to pain receptors.

However, prolonged bed rest can actually make the problem worse because inactivity can cause your back to become weak and stiff. It may also lead to muscle atrophy or cardiopulmonary deconditioning. There are also possible emotional side-effects related to the feeling of helplessness that can come from lying in bed all day, and such factors will serve only to delay recovery.

Generally, one or two days rest is recommended to ease the initial pain, followed by moderate, gentle exercise.

Always sit up straight

It is true that slouching is bad for your back and a good posture is helpful in avoiding chronic pain conditions, particularly for those workers who spend long hours sat at a desk.

But sitting up too straight and still for long periods can also be a strain on your back. Instead, workers should aim to vary their posture throughout the day and take regular breaks to avoid putting unnecessary strain on their back.

This might mean standing for part of the day or taking a brief walk to break up long spells in a sedentary position. It may also be helpful to lean back in the chair with both feet on the floor, allowing the spine to curve slightly.

Stretching relieves back pain

Stretching can be effective in relieving back pain related to muscle tightness, but it is not always the right course of action.

In fact, stretching can actually cause further damage in certain cases when the sufferer is unsure of the cause of their pain. For example, if the nerve from the spine is inflamed, stretching the hamstrings and quadriceps will often do more harm than good, so it may be better to avoid these stretches until the symptoms begin to subside.

It is important not to make assumptions on the cause of back pain and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. However, if it is clear that back pain has resulted from mechanical reasons, stretching is a recommended cause of action that can contribute to overall back health.

Heat will soothe inflammation

Although there is a common perception that heat helps to soothe back pain, this isn’t always the case. In the same vein as stretching, heat is only effective in certain situations – when helping to soothe muscular spasms and trigger points.

In the case of acute injuries, such as a freshly-pulled muscle, heat can actually increase related muscular inflammation and cause the pain to become worse. Instead, it is better to apply ice to such injuries for a short period within 48 to 72 hours.

Heat can be used to soothe more persistent mechanical problems but, equally, should not be relied on as a solution. It helps to manage pain, addressing the symptoms of a back problem, but does not tackle the root cause.

It is possible to slip a disc

The term ‘slipped disc’ has become an incredibly common feature in our vernacular, yet it is not actually possible to ‘slip’ a disc.

Discs consist of metabolically-active tissue and they sit between the vertebrae in the spinal column, acting as shock absorbers. Rather than ‘slipping’, discs simply age and the gel-like centre becomes more stiff and brittle.

The most common issues are a prolapsed (bulging) disc, where inner portion of the disc protrudes and causes the entire disc to bulge, or a herniated disc, where the inner portion breaks through the outer ring. Bulging discs can result in muscle spasms and referred pain down the leg, while herniated discs often result in sharp and shooting pain when the disc compressing spinal nerves. The latter is what we call a ‘trapped nerve’.

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Building emotional resilience in the workplace

Emotional resilience – an individual’s psychological ability to cope with, or adapt to, pressure, change and stress – has infiltrated the world of the workplace.

Promoting the emotional resilience of employees, enabling them to function more effectively in all areas of their lives, can play an important role in helping them to enhance their productivity and performance. Such efforts also complement more traditional and widely recognised strategies to manage and reduce workplace stress.

Building the requisite mental skills means equipping staff with the tools to cope with the prevailing working environment, whether this entails multiple tasks, challenging managerial relationships or high workloads.

Willis PMI Group outlines five key steps to help employers to achieve this and to support their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Step one: profile the health of your staff

Support and advice for staff on how best to build mental resilience can deliver significant benefits, but employers should first establish if, where and how employees need support and coping strategies.

By building a health profile of your workforce, businesses can determine the most appropriate plan of action.

This can be achieved by mining staff health and management information, such as employee assistance programmes (EAP) data, sickness absence data and mental-ill-health-related PMI claims.

In many cases, line managers will be best place to identify where help is needed but appropriate training is important to help them recognise early signs of stress, changes in behaviour or general performance.

Step two: Establish a supportive environment

Business in the Community and the Mental Health Foundation have recommended fostering a healthy psychological environment in their collaborative ‘Emotional Resilience Toolkit’. This environment can be characterised by factors such as employee reward and recognition, employment security and a management style and culture that promotes mutual trust and respect.

Research* supports this suggested approach, demonstrating that a supportive workplace environment in which employees feel empowered can help enhance employees’ stress-management capabilities.

*Meta-analysis of 27 research articles conducted by Barak et al (2009)

Step three: Identify benefit support

Support for staff can be found in employee benefits – notably in Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP).

EAPs can offer one of the most effective methods of building emotional resilience, offering confidential advice and counselling. EAPs, which provide access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline, can help staff address and tackle a range of issues, such as anxiety, stress and depression.

EAPs provide a particularly cost-effective solution, providing staff with access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline. They allow employees to confidentially discuss any issues arising from, or affecting, their work whenever they need support. The helpline enables more reserved employees to communicate and discuss problems without having to engage in face-to-face conversations.

Step four: Introduce resilience and mindfulness training

Emotional resilience capabilities will vary from individual to individual and cannot be taken for granted. Resilience, however, is a skill that can be learned.

Techniques to deal with pressure and stress can be taught through structured resilience training and mindfulness programmes.

Resilience training teaches employees to feel empowered, confident, proactive and decisive. It teaches them not to view difficulties as paralysing events, but rather as challenges. As the benefits of this become more widely recognised, more service providers are looking to offer resilience courses and workshops.

Mindfulness, involving meditation and breathing exercises, provides employees with the tools to improve their awareness of the present moment, rather than being consumed by unhelpful, stress-inducing, thought processes.

Step five: Promote spiritual resilience

Finally, there is a school of thought that suggests spiritual resilience – an individual’s personal life values and goals – can help to support an individual’s emotional resilience.

Building spiritual resilience, it is claimed, can have an important role to play in bolstering employees’ inner strength and general sense of wellbeing. If employees believe in their work, regarding it as meaningful and purposeful, they can have a greater ability to cope when faced with difficult or challenging circumstances.

Spiritual resilience is regarded, alongside emotional resilience, as being one of the key ingredients to mental health by the World Health Organization.

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Workers blame employers for contributing to obesity (19/07/16)

More than a third (34%) of UK workers claim their employers have directly contributed to higher levels of obesity, new research has revealed.

Longer working hours preventing exercise was cited by 59 per cent as the main reason for this, according to the study of 1,197 workers by Willis PMI Group, part of Willis Towers Watson.

Almost half (48 per cent) blamed a lack of exercise facilities and initiatives, while unhealthy vending machine or ‘tuck shop’ snacks (44 per cent) and unhealthy canteen food (38 per cent) were said to be the third and fourth biggest factors behind the assertion.

“The government estimates obesity contributes to the loss of 16 million certified incapacity days each year(1) and this research suggests employers may be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution,” said Mike Blake, Director at Willis PMI Group.

“The findings call for businesses to review their existing workplace cultures and practices and, where appropriate, proactively adopt health and wellbeing initiatives.”

Younger workers were more critical of their employers than their older colleagues. Forty-two per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds blamed their bosses for contributing to higher levels of obesity, compared with just 29 per cent of 35 to 64-year-olds.

The study revealed that only 15 per cent of employers currently offer cut-price gym memberships, 13 per cent offer on-site gym facilities, 10 per cent offer fitness classes and just six per cent offer dedicated weight-loss schemes.

Blake added: “Support and education for employees to combat obesity can be relatively inexpensive to implement, but by encouraging staff to lead healthier lifestyles businesses can help cut obesity-related illnesses and the associated business risks.”

(1) House of Commons Health Select Committee report on obesity, 2004

The research was conducted among 1,197 adults, aged 18-64, who are currently in full or part-time employment in Great Britain. The interviewed sample was weighted to represent the adult population of Great Britain.

British workers becoming less satisfied with the benefits they receive (30/06/16)

British workers are becoming less satisfied with the benefits provided by their employers, new research has revealed.

The study on perceptions of benefits and wellbeing schemes from Willis PMI Group, part of Willis Towers Watson, found 44 per cent of employees are happy with the benefits they receive, compared to 53 per cent last year.

So, despite increasing recognition of the positive impact benefits and wellbeing schemes can have on staff performance, it appears employees’ expectations are still not being met. This is further underlined by regional differences in the study – although workers in London (55 per cent) and Scotland (52 per cent) appear reasonably satisfied, there are significant variations across Britain and satisfaction dips as low as 36 per cent in the North West.

“Given the current focus on reducing the burden of employee ill health and sickness absence on the economy, it is surprising to find the perception of benefits provision is actually on the decline,” said Mike Blake, Director at Willis PMI Group. “Companies might ask whether this is due to increasing expectation, a shortfall in provision or a failure to properly communicate available benefits to staff.

“It is important for employers to identify the specific challenges faced by their business and actively engage with their staff in order to better understand what benefits are both needed and wanted. Schemes will be most successful when they align the goals of the organisation with the desires of employees.”

The research also found only 37 per cent of workers surveyed said their employers currently make provisions to look after their health and wellbeing. In addition, it revealed significant variations by region, with provision highest in Scotland (48 per cent) and London (44 per cent), and lowest in the Midlands (30 per cent).

“The high response in London can perhaps be expected, considering the high concentration of large corporate organisations, but it is encouraging to note this is also the case in Scotland,” added Blake.

“Benefits and wellbeing schemes are important tools for boosting health and productivity, tackling sickness absence and improving employee satisfaction. By utilising the full range of benefits available to them, employers can take targeted action to address specific issues arising from a wide range of health conditions, from musculoskeletal problems to stress.”

The research was conducted among 1,197 adults, aged 18-64, who are currently in full or part-time employment in Great Britain. The interviewed sample was weighted to represent the adult population of Great Britain.