Lenah Okwaro, a banker, has a goal to reduce her weight to at least 60kg. She is now 70kg. She is 35, and she is dying to get back into shape after gaining 20kg during her pregnancy last year.
It is not so easy for Ms Okwaro.
She works five days a week, and during her off days, she has to spend time with her little one who is still breastfeeding. Despite her physical wellness aspirations, she can hardly find time to exercise.
My weight gain is working negatively on my self-esteem. I no longer feel very confident in my attire. I feel uncomfortable when addressing a client, for example,” she confesses.
Yet her work and domestic responsibilities seem to have connived to deny her time to run as she would before to stay fit. She has to find other ways to stay healthy.
Research confirms that many other employees are in a similar predicament. Despite wide knowledge about the importance of physical wellness, for many employees, the work environment and conditions do not afford them the time and space to engage in enough physical exercise, according to a survey carried out among employees of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) agencies in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. About 16,284 employees were interviewed across the four countries.
The findings were released last month, and they suggest that employers need to create work environments that promote physical fitness and well-being. The study was conducted to generate baseline data that would help in the planning and designing of wellness activities.
Physical fitness stood out as the dominant aspect to be addressed. Many workers remained unfit, saying that they did not have time off work to exercise.
Such was the findings of similar surveys done in other parts of the world. Fior example, research in the US, China, India, UK, and Brazil found last December that physical activity levels had declined in recent years due to a heavier reliance on technology in the workplace.
Researchers foresee a future with less activity levels as they continue to decline by the day, especially at the workplaces. There is the fear, therefore, that the level of physical inactivity at workplaces is exposing employees to chronic disease risks.
A research conducted in 2011 by ComPsych revealed that 43 per cent of employees are most concerned about losing weight, and that 20 per cent considered exercise to be their top health priority.
ComPsych is the pioneer provider of fully integrated behavioural health, wellness, work-life, HR and family administration services. It is based in the US.
In the study, employees blamed busy work schedules for their lack of exercise, hence the recommendation that employers should offer tools that employees can implement into their daily routines to promote physical activity in the workplace.
In addition to this, “Providing fruit baskets or other healthy snack alternatives near company entrances and exits further communicates a health-friendly environment to employees…” recommends the ComPsych study.
This could help save a situation such as the one found by the AKDN study, that only 10 per cent of men and slightly fewer women report no intake of food high in fat.
The AKDN study showed that women were generally engaged in less physical activity per week than men. This was mostly attributed to a number of factors other than interest, given women’s disproportionate responsibilities in child care and other domestic duties.
Organisational support of physical fitness and awareness among employees was found to be minimal in all the four countries under study. A majority of the employees interviewed were not aware of any physical fitness programmes at their workplaces. About 50 per cent of employees thus expressed the need for more physical fitness.
AKDN wellness manager for East Africa and Mozambique, Mr Joshua Ongwae, is of the view that “employers should offer subsidised or even fully paid for gym facilities for their staff to help them keep fit.”
But because often times to go to the gym is the bigger problem, such as in Ms Okwaro’s case, Ongwae advises organisations to grant employees an opportunity to work out in the morning within the work premises and provide shower facilities.
“Employers could provide an exercise room or a gym where employees can work out for about 30 minutes, either in the morning, at lunch break or in the evening,” he says.
He adds, however, that “as much as employers create time and facilities for employees to keep fit, employees should also take the initiative to make good use of the provisions for their own benefit.”
Regular wellness check-ups such as body mass index and general nutritional check-ups at the workplace can encourage employees to engage more in physical activities.
“Physically fit employees are more able to carry out responsibilities without much ado. Those who are so weighty and less fit are prone to illnesses,” Ongwae explains.
“A blood vessel of a person who is physically unfit is generally filled with greater levels of fats compared to that of a person who is fit, therefore resulting in high blood pressure,” offers Nyanza provincial director of medical services, Dr Ojwang Lusi.
Dr Lusi adds that the low self-esteem that an unhealthy employee experiences contributes to insecurity, which becomes a nagging reminder of one’s weakness at work.

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