Boosting employees’ immune systems

As well as the colder weather, winter brings with it a myriad of health problems, namely bugs, colds and flu.

And it seems that 2018 has got off to a not so healthy start.

GPs have seen a surge in suspected flu cases over the past couple of weeks, up by as much as 40% on previous years.

According to NHS Choices, it takes around one week for sufferers to feel better after catching the highly-infectious flu, so employers can expect high levels of sickness absence and presenteeism.

When employees do get ill, it is important that they are given appropriate time off to get better and greatly reduce the chances of passing on the illness to colleagues.

But how do employers help to reduce the risk of sickness absence en masse, which inevitably puts a strain on resources?

Although steps can be taken to reduce the spread of germs from coughs and sneezes, employees come into contact with germs outside of the office, so there is no way of eradicating the risk of getting ill.

But employees can take steps to strengthen their immune system, so that they are less susceptible to colds and flu. And with timely advice and support, employers can help their workforce to achieve this.

1. Reduce stress

Stress weakens the immune system, so we should all try and take some time out of the day to concentrate on our mental health and get back to fighting fit.

Thanks to technology, there are a number of aids available to help reduce stress levels, such as meditation and mindfulness apps.

Employers can help employees better cope with stressors in their lives by offering benefits that support positive mental health, such as yoga classes and EAPs.

By putting mental health at the centre of an organisation, the stigma is diminished and those struggling with poor mental health will be more likely to be open with managers and seek help.

This will have a positive impact on productivity and overall happiness of the workforce, with the boost the immune system an added bonus.

2. Get sufficient sleep

Sleep deprivation suppresses the immune system so getting seven-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep a night plays a big role in helping us fight off colds and bacterial ailments.

Meditative apps can help employees nod off, as can limiting caffeine intake and staying away from bright lights before bed, such as iPads and smartphones.

Employers should bear in mind that lack of sleep can stem from stressful working environments.  A WTW study found that more than a third (36%) of workers struggle to get a good night’s sleep because of their job.

Employers can help by educating their employees on the impact of poor sleep on general wellbeing and helping them achieve a work-life balance.  This could include encouraging employees not to check email out of hours, creating clear boundaries between work life and home life.

3. Get moving

Exercise may be mooted as the go-to solution for improving health and wellbeing, but it really does have a positive impact on the immune system.

It helps boosts the number of white blood cells and killer cells in our bodies, meaning we are better equipped to fight infection.

Employers can help assist employees to lead more active lives by offering subsidised gym memberships, running cycle to work schemes or promoting the benefits of wearable technology.

4. Nutrients

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can make us more susceptible to illness so try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.  Taking a multi-vitamin will help achieve recommended daily doses.

Also try to avoid excess sugar, as this can cause inflammation, which can impair the immune system.

Employers can offer dietary advice to employees, and also help by providing or subsiding healthy food, such as fruit and yoghurt, in the office space.  Weight-loss programmes can be offered, as can health MOTs, to encourage employees to take ownership of their health and wellbeing.

5. Quit smoking

The damaging effects of cigarette smoking is well-documented, with high incidences of cancer and other serious diseases.

Although the number of smokers has significantly declined in recent years, almost one in six adults in the UK smoke*.

Due to the high levels of tar and other harmful chemicals, cigarette smoke can suppress the immune system, making it less able to fight off infections.

Long-term weakening of the immune system increases vulnerability to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Employers can support their workforce by offering smoking cessation programmes as a health benefit.

*Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2017, Office of National Statistics 

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A third of UK workers think they should be financially rewarded for living a healthy lifestyle (07/02/2018)

A third (33%) of UK workers believe their bosses should pay them for keeping healthy, research has revealed.

The recent study by Willis Towers Watson (WTW) also revealed that 34% of employees would only participate in a company health initiative if there was a financial incentive to do so, up from 26% in 2013.

While traditional financial incentives include performance-linked bonuses, profit sharing, and living or car allowances, more contemporary rewards include ‘wellness payments’, which employees spend on keeping healthy, for example, on health screenings, physiotherapy treatment, gym or sports club membership or spa days.

The findings show that this incentive demand is part of a wider problem with employees’ engagement in their company wellbeing initiatives, as 70% of workers do not believe they meet their needs.

Mike Blake, wellbeing lead for Willis Towers Watson, said: “The figures suggest that despite employers increasing their focus on health and wellbeing, existing schemes are not appealing to employees and, as a result, many feel they need extra motivation to participate, in the shape of financial incentives. Having a healthy workforce does, of course, greatly benefit employers, as it leads to lower levels of sickness absence, productivity loss and employee turnover, but employees reap the rewards of living healthier lives too.

“Taking care of health and worker wellbeing should be a shared priority of both employee and employer, not seen as additional workload that workers should be compensated for.

“Companies who struggle to engage with their employees would be wise to review their current health and wellbeing initiatives, so that they are truly valued by employees and meet their needs and personal health goals.”

The research found that, over the next three years, 33% of organisations believe their strategy for encouraging healthy behaviours, such as smoking cessation, weight management or increasing exercise levels, will focus primarily on direct financial incentives, an increase from 12% currently.

But Blake advised companies to be cautious about adopting such an approach.

“It is understandable that companies – particularly those who are frustrated at a lack of engagement – are tempted to offer financial incentives to their employees. But this can be a knee jerk response to problems that may require deeper answers.

“Often a more sustainable solution is to ask more searching questions about the programmes and initiatives that are already in place, for example: are they joined up; do they connect to employees’ wants and needs; is there a broad enough range; and are they well communicated?

“Employers could consider appealing to the tech-savvy, time-strapped, fitness-conscious worker, for example, by offering wearable technology subsidies, promoting the use of meditation apps and introducing health-league tables.  After all, health and wellbeing programmes, as well as health-orientated benefits, are only valuable if they are utilised.

“Very often companies experience an initial upsurge in engagement when they introduce new initiatives or wellness programmes, but experience shows that this can be short-lived as people get used to them over time and they lose their behavioural influence.

“Employers need to plan for this by attracting employees’ attention and keeping them motivated. Communication is key in achieving this.  Regular, effective messaging can help reinforce the personal benefits of participation and lower the risk of complacency or

The Global Benefits survey is a global study that explores individuals’ attitudes to their health and retirement benefits. The survey took place between July and August 2017 and was completed by 2,824 employees at medium and large private sector companies in the UK.