Four ways to keep employees healthy this winter

With the ongoing focus on Covid, businesses shouldn’t forget about the other ways they can keep their staff well during the colder months, says Janet O’Neill

Many employees were spared the usual winter illnesses last year because of social distancing. But with many people now back in the workplace, 'flu cases are expected to surge. Meanwhile, the shorter, darker days make it more difficult to stay physically active and increase the risk of becoming depressed.

Employers that meet these challenges head on will not only make their people feel more cared for but can also reduce winter-related absence and productivity issues. So here are four tips for keeping your workforce healthy this winter:

Reduce the risk of catching ‘flu

With this year set to see particularly favourable conditions for the spread of ‘flu, the NHS is embarking on its largest ‘flu vaccination campaign ever. This includes giving those with underlying health conditions the jab for free. Even so, just one in three people typically take up the opportunity, not least due to struggling to fit this into their working day.

By encouraging those who are being offered the vaccination to take this up, or offering workplace ‘flu vaccinations to all employees, you can help reduce the spread. Other measures, such as encouraging anyone with symptoms to work from home and practising social distancing and regular handwashing, can also help. 

Provide education on vitamin D

Vitamin D, known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, has immunity-boosting properties and is essential to maintaining good bone health and reducing the risk of broken bones in later life. However, it’s not possible to get enough vitamin D from sunshine alone in the UK during the winter months. Make sure employees are aware of this, and the importance of vitamin D.

Encourage them to take up public health advice that everyone over the age of 5 consider taking a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day from October to March. Alternatively, provide a webinar on the risks associated with vitamin D deficiency, which affects one in five people in the UK, with advice on how to improve their nutrition.

Help people avoid the winter blues

Lots of people get depressed in the winter or suffer from the ‘winter blues’ – also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms include feeling depressed most of the day or every day, having low energy, losing interest in activities, suffering sleep issues and experiencing changes in appetite and appearance.

Half an hour of vigorous exercise three times a week can reduce depression, so encourage employees to stay active and get as much daylight as possible, by arranging walking meetings or group walks. Encourage people to get away from their desk and go outside during the day. Also make sure managers know how to recognise the signs that someone is becoming depressed – such as reduced concentration or becoming tearful or aggressive – so they can refer them to any support in place, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Encourage everyone to stay active

It’s much more difficult to get up and go for a run, or drag yourself off the sofa to do yoga, in winter than during the summer months. Fortunately, staying active doesn’t necessarily require going outside. Strength-based activities, such as lifting weights or doing an online conditioning class, can be just as effective as cardio exercise.

By adapting your winter health and wellbeing plans to include ways to stay fit indoors, you can help those who dislike going out in the dark to stay fit as well. Also think about educating people about other things they can do to make themselves want to stay more active, such as eating a healthy balanced diet and getting enough sleep.

Janet O’Neill is clinical nurse leader at PAM Group