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A proposal for busting unhealthy workplaces

While the previous post makes a suggestion for how the Federal Government could ensure healthier, fairer food policy, in the article below health policy consultant Margo Saunders suggests workplaces (including government departments) could be doing more to promote good health.

She suggests that we need a bit of online activism, in the vein of The Parent’s Jury, to highlight unhealthy workplace practices, invite discussion and act as a forum for the exchange of information about effective health-promoting initiatives.

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Workplaces could do much more for our health

Margo Saunders writes:

Australia is, as we are constantly reminded, in the midst of an epidemic of obesity which is fuelling an increase in chronic disease.  Two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight and one-fifth are obese. Even among people without weight worries, there is a growing awareness that looking after our health means not only reducing the risk of disease, in some abstract sense, but increasing the chances of feeling better, in a very real sense.

Why is it, then, that wherever we look, there are workplaces which undermine employees’ desire to achieve and maintain good health, particularly in relation to food and physical activity?

Health-promoting workplace initiatives have been supported in various States, including Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria, often in partnership with non-government health organisations. Some initiatives target blue-collar workplaces, where there are particular challenges relating to occupational norms, gendered attitudes, low health literacy and minimal availability, affordability and convenience of healthy food options.  Some programs, notably Victoria’s WorkHealth initiative, focuses on workplace-based screenings and health assessments.

Industry-focused workplace initiatives which target specific issues such as mental health, bullying, smoking, alcohol and drug use have been strongly supported by employers and unions.

It will take more than these scattered, well-meaning initiatives to make a real dent in the health of Australian workers as long as workplaces - white collar, blue collar and pink collar – persist in practices in which the ‘default option’ is the unhealthy option.

Public service workplaces and health organisations are among the key culprits when it comes to unhealthy environments.  I recently worked in a health department where the vending machines were full of junk food and the Social Club raised funds by selling junk food in the staff kitchens.

‘Incidental exercise’, such as using the stairs instead of the lift to travel between floors, may not be the answer either: in many workplaces, including those involved in health promotion, stairwells are off-limits because of ‘security reasons’.

I have, however, also worked in organisations where a senior manager took it upon himself to arrange for low-fat milk and fresh fruit to be provided in the staff kitchen. And I have worked in a large building where the coffee shop downstairs offered a delicious and inexpensive range of ‘mini-muffins’. The problem is that these positive initiatives get little or no recognition.

My current concerns were prompted by a ‘snack’ item given to me by a friend who works for a Canberra-based public sector agency. Concerned about her own weight, my friend is currently going to considerable inconvenience and expense to participate in the 1 million kilo challenge, a national 10-wk program of meal and exercise plans.

The ‘snack’ item was a 160g ‘Traditional Rock Cake’ made by Balfours of South Australia. It is described on the wrapper as being made from a ‘traditional recipe’ by a company which has been ‘baking since 1853.’  Yum… goodness, right?

Not quite. This snack item has the kilojoule the equivalent of a large meal — a massive 2580kj, or 520kj more than a McDonald’s Big Mac. This individually-packaged cake contains 16.9g of fat, of which 6.9g is saturated, in addition to 46.5g of sugar and 674mg of sodium. The listed ingredients include emulsifiers, colours and other additives — a total of 14 ingredients with ‘numbers’.

I compare this ‘snack’ to one of my normal sweet snacks: a chocolate-coated 21.5g Kellogg’s Special K bar or an Aldi 30g ‘Be Good’ muesli bar.  The Special K Bar has 370kj, with 1.7g fat, 6.3g sugar, and 53mg sodium; the Aldi muesli bar has 453kj, with 0.8g fat, 4.1g sugar and 39mg of sodium. Even a 35g Carman’s Dark Choc – Cranberry & Almond Bar, which sounds more like a dessert than a dainty health food, comes in at 655kj, with 7.7g fat.

When I asked my friend how she happened to have this little gem, she explained that she got it at work: her workplace has ‘an arrangement’ with the company to deliver snack items on a regular basis.

There is now an interesting and important body of literature about workplace health promotion, including factors contributing to the success or lack of success of various programs.

This issue, however, is not about health promotion programs which use the workplace as a setting to change individuals’ behaviour: it is about re-tooling the way that workplaces operate so that health is something that happens by default rather than being something that requires numerous barriers to be consciously overcome.

While the idea may have strong links to nudge theory, it is also consistent with established concepts of health promotion.  The Ottawa Charter’s model of health promotion, for example, emphasises the need to see health promotion activity as an integral part of ordinary work practice, rather than a stand-alone program.

It seems extraordinary that, despite the rhetoric about the need to be healthy and avoid excess weight, there seems to be no organised push, at a broad, national level, to acknowledge and act on the role of the workplace as a player in the obesogenic environment.

As the efforts to achieve smoke-free workplaces have shown, health-related changes are driven by high-level commitment by the organisation – and a larger, national framework can work wonders, too. Where is our Michelle Obama-type champion who will cajole – or shame – the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Council of Trade Unions into doing something about obesogenic workplace environments?

There is something else that we need. The Parents Jury has been successful in drawing public and media attention to the marketing of junk food to young children. Their initiatives such as the Fame and Shame awards serve to promote good and bad examples of food marketing.

What we need now is an organisation, with an interactive website and a facebook page, to highlight unhealthy workplace practices, invite discussion and act as a forum for the exchange of information about health-promoting initiatives at work, that work.

I’m ready with the first nomination for the Workplace Rock Cake Award.

 

 

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  • 1
    Katrina Davis
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Great article Margo. In a perfect world we’d all have enough self-control to resist the constant offers of morning teas and ease of access to unhealthy snacks which is common at so many workplaces. But for many of us (including me) it’s not that simple – we need healthy food to instead become the default and easy option.

    There is actually some work happening on this issue at the national level through the Healthy Workers Initiative – part of the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health (I don’t work there, not a plug). Be worth keeping an eye on.

  • 2
    Cajela
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d welcome some changes in the workplace. I bring my own fruit & nut snacks and avoid the vending machine chocolates, for instance, and I think that closed stairwells are an abomination that should be banned. More widespread use of dual standing/sitting desks would be good, and oh, if only the stretch break could be as socially acceptable as the old cigarette break used to be! I’d be delighted! Yes, OH&S politely suggest it in most places, but no-one actually seems to do it that I’ve noticed. I mean, you’d be seen to be not! working! You slacker!

    But I also think it’s very important to be careful how you do these things. Workplaces are not homogeneous collections of people who all need the same things to be healthy. For example, it’s particularly troublesome when recovering anorexics are pushed to join a work weight-watching program – that can trigger relapses. Or when people with invisible disabilities are socially shamed for using the lift instead of the stairs.

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