How hoteliers can fight chronic illness

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Keeping employees healthy can pay off.

by LARRY MOGELONSKY, MBA, P.ENG.

You may be familiar with a catchphrase that’s recently entered the zeitgeist sounding something along the lines of, “Sitting is the new smoking.” But what does this really mean? And more importantly, how does it affect hotel operations?

To make sense of this expression, you must first have a general understanding of the difference between acute and chronic illnesses. At their most basic level, the former involves something that happens fast – such as food poisoning, a fever or, heaven forbid, getting into a traumatic motor vehicle accident – whereas the latter is the cumulative result of weeks, months or years of exposure to a seemingly insignificant danger.

For instance, a single cigarette may only leave your clothes smelling a bit off, but three decades worth of smoking a pack a day will char the insides of your lungs, severely depress your immune system and can give you some form of malignant cancer. Likewise, eating a single bowl of ice cream won’t give you heart disease or atherosclerosis, but repeatedly eating unhealthy foods over the course of many years without proper exercise may.

If you are looking for a more in-depth explanation of these two broad groupings, consult a reputable internet site or your doctor. I am a hotelier with no medical background and am primarily concerned at this juncture with what you can do to reduce chronic illnesses within your team as well as save you money via productivity gains and fewer long-term disability payouts.

As countless studies have long since drawn a direct causative line between smoking and illness, tobacco’s consumption nowadays has been drastically waning in Western culture. However, as our usage of computers or any other digital screens for work and leisure increase at an equally towering rate, we now find ourselves sitting for an inordinate number of hours per day. The end result is that we are no longer as physically active as we once were, thereby heightening our chances of accruing a chronic illness associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Hence, sitting is the new smoking, with the latter no longer a leading societal concern and the former poised to be a real killer in the coming decades.

Start with Nudges

For some chronic illnesses, there’s only so much you can do as a leader in a corporate, and non-familial or medical, capacity. You can’t force someone to quit smoking or to eat a salad for lunch instead of creamy pasta. Nor can you order employees to start going to the gym three times a week lest they suffer pecuniary repercussions.

These are personal freedoms that should not be mandated by any boss, let alone one that hopes to build camaraderie amongst his or her team. However, you can add seemingly innocuous and peripheral hints or limits within your work environment to help your employees see the light insofar as simple lifestyle changes that they can make on a daily basis.

Let’s start with nutrition, which is perhaps the most straightforward for comprehending these healthy nudges and also quite cheap for noticeable results. Do you provide food for your staff in a communal cafeteria? If so, you can take measures like eliminating desserts or sugary beverages like soda altogether as well as offering healthier alternatives. In this case, you are technically restricting your staff from eating whatever they want but you are also removing temptation so that the better choice is that much easier to make.

If providing free food for all isn’t in your budget, then aim to start bringing in healthy snacks instead of the perfunctory plastic container of chocolate cookies or donuts. Again, the concept here is that you can’t eat what’s not around so not leaving any junk food on the countertops translates into less junk food consumed. Similarly, for the next offsite team luncheon where you have the final word on where you dine, choose a place or a prix fixe menu that skews a bit lighter on calories and carbohydrates. You might also consider hints like handing out informational pamphlets, negotiating discounts at a nearby healthy food vendor or offering coupons to such a vendor as a reward for good performance.

As for keeping fit, all it takes to convince the more languid individuals that their cardiovascular systems need a boost is to go on a mild, two-hour team hike where they will be out of breath while their in-shape coworkers will remain largely unfazed. A teambuilding day like this may be tough to arrange so a more grounded, long-term approach to incentivizing people to get into an exercise routine would be to organize regular group classes or provide reduced membership fees to the local gym. For this, you are giving your employees enough resources to start a new cycle, but ultimately it is entirely up to them to take the plunge then make it a habit.

Quitting the habit of smoking cigarettes, on the other hand, can be especially challenging given the highly addictive attributes of nicotine, so this is one chronically dangerous habit for which there’s very little that you, as a boss, can legally impose. By implementing hints in a few of the other abovementioned areas, though, you will end up fostering a community of health-conscious individuals, which will in turn help smokers who want to quit actualize this goal.

Corrective Investments

At this stage, it’s all been about offering the option for a healthier path in life and providing an environment for new habits to form, then letting your employees take the plunge for themselves. A broader implication from these activities is that a healthier team will take less sick days while the resultant lift in mental stamina will lead to more effective completion of projects. After all, exercise and healthy eating habits have been shown to elevate the mood and alleviate minor depression, thus making for a more positive office atmosphere.

There are, however, major capital investments worth consideration that can mitigate the causes of other chronic illnesses – ones that may occur as a direct result of the years working at your hotel.

Circling back to our opening adage, to counter the rise of too much sitting, you can buy ergonomic chairs or standing desks for your entire front office team. Even though this is a hefty investment, the payoff will be naturally more energetic personnel and far fewer lower back, shoulder or neck strains, all of which will work to reduce the chances of any ‘sitting diseases’ from negatively impacting productivity.

More specific to the increasingly idiosyncratic hotel ecosystem, consider the typical housekeeper. They are exposed every single workday to chemical products that may or may not have adverse long-term side effects while also enduring the physical aches associated with cleaning a guestroom. All that bending and lifting over many years can lead to what is properly known as a repetitive strain injury (RSI), especially if they aren’t using the proper bodily technique to perform these laborious tasks.

While it’s doubtful that your property will become entangled in any sort of class action lawsuit related to either of these damaging sources, what happens when a group of veteran housekeepers go on disability leave due to RSIs and your insurance premiums go up as a result of the payouts incurred?

Taking remedial action in this case would mean better retraining and recommended stretching exercises for your room attendants so that they all utilize the proper form when lifting objects or bending to in turn alleviate the stress on at-risk joints like the lumbar spine, knees or wrists. Even for such quotidian movements as correctly squatting through the hips to lift objects off the ground, however, new habits nonetheless take many repetitions to successfully form. In order for this ergonomic retraining to be effective, you will therefore need a strong system of accountability in place.

For instance, hiring an onsite exercise coach for your entire team on a weekly basis would be fantastic and highly inspirational, but it would also come with a rather unrealistic price tag. Instead, I would recommend that you investigate a 21st century solution wholly based on technological automation. There are now a handful of mobile apps explicitly for exercise routines that can spur users to keep up with the program through gamification techniques like daily login rewards. Representing the pinnacle of this area, there are now motion-sensor based terminals that can be installed on property to effectively teach these ergonomic movements without direct supervision.

Albeit these forward-thinking tactics may not do much to influence those staffers already on leave for RSIs, they will nevertheless help to prevent future cases from occurring. There’s also the halo effect to consider, whereby your employees will see that you genuinely care for their wellbeing through these investments that will unswervingly influence their livelihoods, which will in turn raise overall morale. Furthermore, you might also consider switching to organic cleaning products or those with a higher proportion of natural cleaning products that are significantly less harmful to the skin or other exposed body parts.

Ultimately, though, and all monetary concerns aside, it’s all about helping your employees live their lives to their fullest. Whether it’s aiding them in sitting fewer hours per day, giving them better lunch options or teaching them how to squat so they never pull their backs out, as a leader you have a responsibility to care for your team and to help them fight chronic illnesses before these ailments become demoralizing or, worse, debilitating. Tackling these options one by one over the coming months and years will realize some very healthy returns. ■

Photo credit: alphaspirit/Shutterstock.com

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