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Stress and other work pressures can have a significant impact on staff waistlines. Sally O'Reilly reports...
Stress and other work pressures can have a significant impact on staff waistlines. Sally O'Reilly reports

How do you get through the day? According to a survey published by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), women working long hours are more likely than their male counterparts to reach for the biscuit barrel when they need a boost. The survey claims that while women react to stress by eating more high-sugar snacks, drinking more caffeine, smoking more and exercising less, men aren't as badly hit.

These findings are part of a survey conducted by psychologists from Leeds University into the effects of stress on eating. 'Those most at risk of snacking under stress are best described as emotional eaters,' says researcher Dr Daryl O'Connor. 'When they experience negative feelings, they turn their attention to food.'

So how should councils help staff avoid this negative cycle? According to Pauline Lucas, HR director at Hampshire CC and lead officer on well-being at the Public Sector People Managers' Association, the role of employers is to offer staff the support and information they need about healthy eating and finding the right work/life balance. 'We do lead increasingly pressurised lives, and we have to try and help people manage their frantic lifestyles,' she says. 'But I don't see eating junk food when stressed as a gender issue - men reach for the biscuits too.'

Ms Lucas believes the priority is to make well-being a priority for managers, and to give staff as much flexibility as possible over how they organise their work and home life.

'We are finding a slight shift away from staff wanting to work part-time, and towards staff wanting flexible full-time working,' she says. 'But flexible working needs to be part of an overall health and well-being strategy, so employees can look out for danger signs if they are stressed.'

This integrated approach has been taken by Tameside MBC. As well as offering flexible working, the council also encourages sensible eating through its health and wellbeing strategy. This includes free fruit on desks for staff, healthy options in vending machines and an emphasis on drinking lots of water.

For HR adviser, policy and strategy, Christine Wroe, the message is that staff are less likely to grab a jammy doughnut if healthier options come easily to hand. What's more, if staff have good information about how to keep fit, they may be more inclined to stick to a better lifestyle.

'Staff have access to lifestyle clinics run by the occupational health department on Fridays, which test blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, waist measurements and so on and some people have been referred to their GPs as a result of what these clinics have found,' says Ms Wroe.

Getting buy-in from the top is vital and the scheme has the full support of chief executive Janet Callender and her senior colleagues. 'There isn't a corporate pot of money for this, and senior managers are funding it from their service area budgets,' says Ms Wroe.

Senior staff are likely to be under intense pressures themselves, and would do well to take heed of well-being policies, says Mark Turner, managing director of recruitment company Veredus. 'Overwork is more of an issue the more senior you are,' he points out. 'You have to be on call and available for council meetings and other commitments outside the normal working day. The demands on senior jobs are actually increasing.'

Long hours and overwork are here to stay, and coping effectively means that both organisations and individuals need to look at the bigger picture, according to Clive Pinder, director of healthy living consultancy Vielife, which is advising both Tameside and Hampshire. 'There are four pillars of good health: sleep, emotional resilience, nutrition and physical exercise,' he says. 'Health and well-being does relate to productivity. For instance, a 2% drop in hydration can cause a 20% drop in productivity for staff doing physical jobs. Employers need to measure the health and well-being of employees, and the impact on business, and then put programmes in place to target the most important issues.'

Managers have a part to play in supporting staff and making sure that no matter how stressed they are feeling, they avoid the biscuits, cigarettes and caffeine.

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