A workplace wellness revolution

With our ever increasing recognition of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, it’s no surprise that workplace wellness is a hot topic these days. From standing desks to cycling during board meetings, some of the most innovative and forward thinking global businesses are setting the bar pretty high. And rightly so as on average we spend over a decade of our lives at work, a fair amount of this chained to our desks.

Chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity are the greatest causes of disability and death on the planet today. In fact, they far outnumber the effects of infectious diseases like TB, Cholera and even Ebola combined. In the UAE 19% of the population suffer from diabetes and this doesn’t include those who are borderline diabetics, suffering from what the medical community calls ‘pre-diabetes’. The majority of these chronic conditions are preventable and are a direct result of the lifestyle choices we make. Sedentary living, poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, sky-rocketing stress levels and declining emotional wellbeing are just some of the factors which can contribute to our chances of developing one or more of these diseases.

Although the physical effects of modern day living are incredibly important, stress and depression are major issues too and there is ongoing research analysing the effects of work on our mental health. In a recent poll, 78% of Americans described their jobs as stressful but it wouldn’t be surprising if this figure was similar or even higher in other countries.

Of course, with declining health come more sick days, lower productivity, more mistakes, higher medical costs and reduced team morale. But what do we expect when most of us work in high pressure jobs that require little or no physical activity with barely any time to eat or drink?  It was this realisation that ultimately led to the workplace wellness drive.

Depending on the business, workplace wellness can really include anything from a one-off blood pressure check to offering free fresh fruit. However, I believe the best and most successful programmes are those that aim to both educate staff whilst create lasting behavioural change whether through talks, workshops or other activities. It’s essential to empower people with the knowledge they need to make better decisions and also to show them how to challenge their current habits and create new ones. Because healthy habits shouldn’t be limited to time at home or to time at the office. Instead they should become a way of life.

Ever heard of Karoshi? This is the Japanese term for occupational sudden mortality. Literally translated it means ‘overwork death’ and has become such a problem amongst the Japanese professional culture that it even got its own word. In recent years, annual rates attributed to Karoshi in Japan have risen to record highs of almost 1,500 deaths although the actual figures may be much higher. It’s most commonly put down to heart attacks and strokes related to stress and poor nutrition. On a global scale, every 15 seconds a worker somewhere in the world dies from a work-related accident or disease. These are definitely sobering figures.

So whose responsibility is it to ensure staff are kept healthy and happy? Businesses? Individuals? Or should governments be passing legislation to protect the health of their working population? As with most of these sorts of dilemmas, it’s ideally all of the above. But it takes years for legislation to be passed and although corporate wellness initiatives are becoming more and more popular, not every work place has one. And even if yours does, at the end of the day it’s really up to you to make a change and maintain it. So whether your work has a wellness programme or not, what can you do to start your own wellness revolution and spread the healthy living message?


-       Don’t keep a water bottle at your desk

 Instead have a glass and fill it up at the water cooler whenever you want a drink. This is not only good for the environment but gets you up and moving regularly. It will also help send the subliminal message that no one needs to be stuck to their chair the whole day. By being less sedentary you will improve your own physical and mental health whilst showing your team that it really is ok to get up.


-       Value face-to-face contact

Don’t email or call a colleague, instead walk to their desk and talk to them. This is actually great for building better team relationships and boosting morale but again also incorporates some physical activity into your day. We are still social creatures and need human interaction, no matter how connected we are online.


-       Dare to Stand during meetings

It may seem awkward at first but no doubt your colleagues will begin to question whether they should be standing too. You might even start a trend. Of course, this may not always be appropriate or practical but if you persevere you’ll soon wonder how you managed to get through those long meetings without it. Standing meetings are slowly becoming more common place so why not become your own company’s wellness pioneer?


-       Prep your meals

Plan ahead and prep your lunches at the weekends. This may seem like a chore but it means you can be sure you’re eating healthy, nutritious food and saving money on lunch and snacks. Interestingly, a recent study done in the UK shockingly revealed the average office worker there spends the equivalent of approximately 12000AED a year on lunch, snacks and coffees at work.


For some simple office snacks, why not try:

Unsalted raw nuts

Sunflower and pumpkin seeds

Dried figs

Fresh fruit

Chopped carrots and cucumbers

Homemade granola bars


-       Take your lunch break

There’s no point prepping your meals if you’re not going to eat them so make sure you have a break. In the cooler months you could even go outside and top up your Vitamin D levels especially as Vitamin D deficiency is such a problem in the UAE. You’ll be far more productive after a break and it’s a much smarter way of working efficiently and effectively.


-       Get strict

If you’re prone to letting the hours slip by whilst you’re busy working away, set a timer on your phone to remind you to stand up every 20 minutes even if it’s just for 2-3 minutes at a time. It can take some getting used to but you’ll soon get into the swing of things and enjoy your regular standing breaks.


-       Protect your back

Don’t be shy about asking for an ergonomic assessment. A laptop riser and correctly positioned chair might just save your neck, back and posture. Even just a few months of using ill adjusted equipment can cause serious damage so make sure your work space is set up right.


-       Leave on time

Never underestimate the importance of leaving on time when it comes to maintaining work-life balance and job satisfaction. Realistically this is not always possible but it’s probably much more do-able than you think. One of the most common reasons for not leaving on time has nothing to do with workload but rather worrying what others might think of us. Unfortunately, this can lead to poorly and haphazardly completed work which you’d have been much better off doing the next morning when rested and fresher.


-       Talk to your boss about workplace wellness

Introduce the concept or if you are the boss, consider introducing a workplace wellness programme. They can be as small or big as you like and with employees who participate in wellness programmes taking approximately 70% fewer sick days than those who opt out, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

It’s all well and good hitting the gym after a long day at work but no amount of exercise will counterbalance the detrimental effects of a sedentary day and no amount of weekend healthy eating will repair the damage done by a working week of poor dietary choices. There’s more and more evidence emerging linking our inactivity and general bad habits to the types of chronic conditions mentioned earlier. You may have heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’, designed to demonstrate the degree of danger associated with a sedentary lifestyle. This is why it’s so important to make wise choices and find creative ways to do this even if your workplace is not naturally set up for it. You may even encourage your colleagues to start adopting healthier habits too.

By now you may have thought of lots of other great ways to create a better working environment. Remember, you don’t have to do everything at once. If you’re hesitant about how your actions will be received, just introduce a new one every week or so. Don’t be afraid to set a positive example, take control and make changes in your own life - and before you know it you’ll start seeing changes in others too.