Published: 26/05/2005, Volume II5, No. 5957 Page 34

Obesity is a high-profile patient issue. But would you be surprised to find out that 12 per cent of your staff were obese? This was the reality that confronted East and North Hertfordshire trust after conducting a health and well-being survey of its workforce, the first NHS trust to do so.

Ginger Kandola, deputy director of human resources, said the intention had been to collect hard data on staff health.

'At the time it was very topical - stress was high up the agenda because of the Health and Safety Executive action on an NHS trust [West Dorset General Hospitals trust was issued with an improvement notice for not having a work-related stress policy or risk assessment]. We wanted to do something evidence-based to find out what our problems were. Previous to that we had individuals using the occupational health department, often referred by managers, but we wanted a snapshot of the entire workforce.' The trust employed private sector company Vilife, which also carried out the staff attitudes survey, to quiz staff on smoking habits, weight, amount of exercise, alcohol consumption and whether they felt in control of their workload. The issue of weight loomed large in the findings.

'There were some areas for concern, especially the number of staff who took little or no exercise and were overweight, ' says Ginger. As many as 52 per cent of staff were overweight and 12 per cent were clinically obese.

The trust introduced smokingcessation programmes and subsidised access to Reiki, relaxation classes and massage sessions. It also invited Weight Watchers to start a club.

Staff at the Lister and Queen Elizabeth II hospitals that attended the trustsubsidised weight-loss programme lost a combined total of 110 stone in just 12 months.

Five 12-week courses have run since last year, helping a total of 335 employees. The trust runs the programme through the occupational health department.

Kay Slingsby, who works in the cashier's office at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage, has lost three stone since joining last November.

'I have two young boys and my husband works shifts, so it was never easy for me to go along to a Weight Watchers class. This programme fits into my life and going to the meeting each week during my lunch hour has kept me on track, ' she says.

The survey also threw up concerns about stress, with 25 per cent saying they felt at risk of stress. So as well as shifting pounds, the trust has also invested in 'tranquillity zones'.

Admitting 'It is not everyone's cup of tea', Ginger says the zones, a room in the HR department that is converted for weeks at a time, is a quiet space filled with soothing music, magazines and comfy chairs. It is a place for staff to take refuge from a stressful day.

The trust has also 'done a Jamie Oliver' and is revising the canteen menu, including a proposal to put Weight Watcher points on food labels to help dieters.

'We actually started to look at catering before the Jamie Oliver TV programme.

We did healthy eating days, with the local supermarket donating fresh fruit and vegetables. Now we want to offer healthier options in the canteen, ' says Ginger.

The trust will be repeating the survey this year. 'It is important. You do uncover quite complex needs - for example, we have found the need for a back care advisor.' says Ginger. 'Because of the Improving Working Lives practice plus standard, people are doing things because they think they should. But you have to assess the needs of your organisation first, to try to discover why your staff are off sick.' Rebecca Coombes