On your bike?

One of my colleagues is sitting at her desk with a bag full of bars of Fairtrade chocolate today. No, she's not suddenly acquired an overwhelming chocolate craving. It's all part of 'Green Travel to Work Day', in which local businesses around Wallingford, where CABI has it's headquarters, are encouraging their employees to find environmentally friendly ways to travel to work: walking, cycling, public transport or car-sharing. At CABI, those who do so today can claim a bar of Fairtrade chocolate as a reward. But what's in it for companies? Read on to find out.

There are increasing numbers of green commuting initiatives these days, from local websites set up to help employees find car share partners in their area, to schemes such as London's 'Boris bikes' (named after cycling enthusiast Mayor Boris Johnson)- bicycles available for a small charge from 'docking stations' so that you can pick up a bike for example at a train station in central London and cycle to a docking station near your place of work.

An interesting thing about many workplace initiatives is that they come from employees rather than companies or managers: here at CABI, for example, Green Travel Day is being promoted by Hand Picked blogger Vicki. But are there benefits to the company, as well as the environment, from following more 'green' policies? With many of them (e.g. energy and water conservation) there are clear financial benefits, with initial investments in new technology often paying for themselves over the longer term in terms of reduced energy and water bills. And while checking the new abstracts added to CABI's Leisure Tourism Database yesterday, I came across a study giving one reason why it may also be in the employers interest to promote cycling to work.

A Dutch study recently published by Hendriksen et al. in Preventive Medicine examined sickness and absenteeism in employees who cycle to work versus those who travel by other means. Employees of three large Dutch organizations completed a questionnaire on cycling to work, and the survey results were studied together with absenteeism data for the year preceding the survey. The study of 1236 employees (around two-thirds of them regular cyclists and one-third non-cyclists) found that the regular cyclists had significantly lower rates of absenteeism (on average 7.4 days a year) than non-cyclists (average 8.7 days a year). There was also a relationship between cycling distance and frequency: those who cycled more often and longer distances were absent for fewer days on average.

Now, there are always questions about cause and effect with this type of study. Is there less absenteeism among the regular cyclists because cycling helps keep them fit and healthy, or do they choose to cycle to work because they are younger, fitter, healthier in the first place? Nevertheless, the potential benefits to employers can be significant: the Dutch study calculated that if employers in the Netherlands were to encourage employees to cycle to work more, annual savings in reduced absenteeism could reach 27 million euros. A briefing on the research issued last year by TNO Quality of Life, where the research was done, suggested that employers can promote cycling by providing facilities such as bicycling racks, and bathroom and changing facilities (something which CABI does provide), while government could increase tax allowances for initiatives such as 'company bikes'.

The occasional bar of chocolate for cyclists can't do any harm either.

Reference

The association between commuter cycling and sickness absence. Hendriksen, I. J. M.; Simons, M.; Garre, F. G.; Hildebrandt, V. H.; Preventive Medicine, 2010, 51, 2, pp 132-135, 26 ref. [doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2010.05.007]

More information: Sustrans information sheet 'Active travel and healthy workplaces' (PDF file)

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