Articles

Building a corporate culture of health - Dr Catherine Hamilton

Andrea Thompson

From the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

BP Australasia's core business is oil. As part of their enhanced business model, BP Australasia has invested in new management tools, local community engagement, targets for social and environmental performance, and partnerships with their employees and the community.

At the Health and Productivity Management Congress in Sydney Dr Catherine Hamilton, Medical Director ANZ & South West Pacific, BP Australasia spoke on the BP approach to workplace health. How promotion of workplace health is valued and how the organisation goes about supporting staff to achieve health improvements. The obstacles to improving corporate health were reviewed.

Dr Hamilton voiced BP's culture of health through:

  • Health activities which are part of how the company views business behaviour
  • Health is integrated into the way the company interacts with people
  • Health promotion activities are relevant and positive
  • Health messages/activities are from a trusted source, confidential and fun

A healthy lifestyle is seen as one where health programmes are mostly employer sponsored and bosses as well as staff participate in many of the same programmes. All health activities follow strict access and equity guidelines with carefully structured, but positive competition between employee groups.

Written health reports are distributed to all employees irrespective of their individual athletic ability and level of participation. These outline results and recommendations on how to improve well being and general health. Where there are abnormalities, these are followed up. It is common for supervisors to schedule around health activities and at least one health activity is available on a major site every month.

Health research is carried out with a major tertiary institution every 2 years. BP's health programme is valued by employees and publicised internally and externally. It is an acknowledged part of retention and recruitment strategies. This is apparent when new employees are surprised at the health offers and employees who leave the company often ring up to ask how to run health programmes.

Dr Hamilton stated that a major concern for Australian business is the health of its older workers. She noted the report on Business Work and Ageing at Swinburne University of Technology shows an increasing percentage of workers aged over 45:

  • In 1982 to 1992, 32% of workers were aged over 45 years
  • In the period 2002 to 2012, about 85% of workers will be over 45 years

Another concern is the growing number of workers experiencing mental health problems. Although major diseases such as diabetes, heart, stroke and cancer are the main cause of death in Australian men and women, an estimated 18% of Australian adults suffered some degree of mental illness in 2004 – 2005 (ABS) with 1.8 million workers experiencing mental ill-health.

Health conditions impact the rates of workplace accidents and occupational injuries and illness. The risk of workplace injury increases with a number of health conditions, with examples shown in the following table:

Injury/Illness Risk of workplace accident
Overweight/unfit 2x
Alcohol/drugs 6x
Diabetes 25x
Depression 25x


To avoid some of these risks, BP runs many health prevention programmes such as online health coaching for any fitness level, healthy weight management and heart programmes. One programme called Pace Heart, is run through Ballarat, Monash and Deakin Universities. The course provides:

  • Heart rate Monitors
  • Personal diaries
  • Group Education
  • Physiological and Psychological Assessments at 0, 2 and 6 months

The results of previous programmes have produced statistically significant results:

  • Reduction in anger
  • Reduction in depression
  • Reduction in anxiety
  • Increase in perception of social support
  • Reduction in blood pressure

In addition, BP also screens for diseases and conducts education and physical activity programmes:

Screening for disease Education Increase Physical Activity
Heart Nutrition Swimming
Diabetes Healthy Weight Management Walking
Pace Heart Heart Zone Training Pilates
Skin Cancer Cancer Prevention Yoga
Bowel Cancer Fat Metabolism Stride
Fluvax Mental Health Corporate Games
Arthritis Men's Health Health Programmes
  Women's Health
  • Runamuck
  • 10,000 steps
  • Test Cricket


BP's health policy is centred on ‘Building Life Performance' where employees want to ‘improve what is strong rather than fix what is wrong'. The scientific rationale is to build on strengths and well-being for optimal functioning.

The BP health programmes aim to provide:

  • Satisfaction, contentment and joy not sadness and worry
  • Build strengths not just correct weaknesses
  • Foster living strategies with meaning and purpose

Dr Hamilton also gave advice on how a business can build a health culture. Firstly, it needs to be planned over a number of years with access to good scientific knowledge, health expertise and local site administrative support. Secondly, appropriate facilities for the health activities, some form of messaging to get information to all employees including those without email, some participant funding and staff to manage the ongoing programme are all necessary elements of an effective corporate health programme.

The type of programme depends on:

  • Site size
  • Gender balance
  • Age range
  • Staff sense of adventure

The first programme should be a traditional draw card or completely ‘wacky'.

  • Heart attack risk (Take Heart)
  • Trade in your toothbrush in National Dental Week

The programme needs to be plotted with a small group initially, then feedback can be assessed and the programme adjusted accordingly, using the pilot to reinforce the marketing campaign.

Marketing should:

  • Use positive language in a variety of modes
  • Give a focussed message on behavioural change (small steps)
  • Reinforce personal responsibility
  • Give positive encouragement
  • Provide evaluation (quantitative and qualitative)
  • Provide non cash prizes for competitive group activities (not just for winning)