More than half of UK companies now have a “wellness strategy”, designed to keep employees fit, happy and – crucially – productive. But do they have your best interests at heart? Or is this simply a smart way to stretch their human resources? MH investigat
Company “wellness strategies” are on the rise. But are they looking after you or their assets?
IT’S MIDDAY ON A SUNNY THURSDAY IN JUNE
and a few employees at the Technogym Village in Cesena, Italy, are setting out for a lunchtime run. Not that they need to step outside the 150,000-squaremetre “wellness campus” to get their daily fitness fix – the facility is widely regarded as the healthiest head office in the world. Through the main entrance and to the right is the T-wellness Centre: the staff gym and spa. It also doubles as the design-conscious fitness equipment manufacturer’s showroom.
Spread over two wood-and-glass storeys and looking out over a verdant park, the salon-cum-gym is bountifully stocked with machines, free weights and rigs. Taking advantage of the equipment – and their two-hour lunch break – employees hop on indoor bikes, treadmills and rowers to compete with colleagues, their scores broadcast on big screens. Technogym has full-time personal trainers on its books, but it encourages other staff members to become “wellness ambassadors” by fronting classes. The Village’s facility manager teaches t’ai chi.
After working out, staff members eat in the T-wellness Restaurant, where a locally sourced three-course lunch – for example, passatelli (a variety of pasta native to northern Italy) with tomato and rocket, cod fillet with parsley and lemon, and grilled courgette – costs €1. This nominal fee is imposed to dissuade employees from taking too much free food and wasting it. Outside the restaurant, workers sip espressos at standing tables, which may be less about wellness than simply traditionally Italian, but every bit of physical activity helps. In the offices, they sit on “wellness balls”; on the factory floor, they bask in natural light. Production ceases an hour early during the summer, so people have time to go to the beach. In effect, the Technogym Village is a giant exhibit, a tantalising vision of a wellness Utopia. “We’re not just selling machines,” says Enrico Manaresi, Technogym’s PR director and right-hand man to the company’s founder and president, Nerio Alessandri. (The month I visit, Alessandri is on the cover of the Italian edition of business magazine Forbes, curling a branded dumbbell.) “We’re promoting wellness as a lifestyle,” he says. Technogym is also selling it to 6,000 other companies and counting: everyone from Ferrari, Mercedes and Nike to Adidas and even Coca- Cola has bought in. Manaresi won’t confirm exactly how much of what Technogym offers is now purchased by companies, rather than gyms or individuals, but he admits that this side of the business is “significant”, “growing” and “has huge potential”.
F I TTER, HAPPIER
The culture of workplace wellness has its roots in the US, where employers bear much of the cost of health care and so have embraced any measures that might reduce insurance premiums. On the west coast, where exercise is almost a fashion statement, the Silicon Valley tech giants have predictably been trendsetters. Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” Leadership Institute teaches mindfulness and “emotional intelligence” to its employees. Opened last year, Apple Park, the shiny $5bn icampus in California, boasts a $74m fitness and wellness centre spanning 100,000 square
“Workplace wellness has its roots in America. In Silicon Valley, exercise is almost a fashion statement ”
feet and a yoga room covered in specially distressed stone from a quarry in Kansas.
But, like most health trends, workplace wellness has crossed the pond. Currently under construction, Google’s £1bn London headquarters will house a swimming pool, sports hall and rooftop running track. According to the Rewards and Employee Benefits Association, almost half of UK companies now have a “defined wellbeing strategy”, up from less than a third two years ago. Of those that don’t, half plan to introduce one within a year. It’s not just the corporate behemoths: in 2017, the Federation of Small Businesses launched a campaign with Public Health England and mental health charity Mind to improve the wellbeing of the wider UK workforce.
“Companies are realising the cost that ill health has on their workforce,” says Steven Ward, CEO of non-profit group Ukactive, whose office in central London has its own kettlebells, spin bikes and, thankfully, showers. “More and more businesses are taking workplace wellness seriously.” Indeed, it has become an industry in its own right: Ukactive recently bestowed its Workplace Wellbeing of the Year award on Wellworking, which supplies healthy office furniture. The Global Wellness Institute values the office health market at £33bn.
That figure is dwarfed by the price tag of workplace illness, which a government paper puts at £100bn a year in the UK alone. One in three working-age people have a long-term health condition that affects their work, while around a fifth have a mental health condition. Businesses are “rightly focused on growth, productivity and delivering a return on their investments”, says the paper, but: “Investing in workplace inclusivity, health and wellbeing is critical to these goals.” With a third of our lives spent at work, it’s also a way to save on health service budgets.
A BALANCING ACT
Done properly, workplace wellness can be a sound investment. The Harvard Business Review estimated that the return on “comprehensive, well-run” programmes can be as high as six to one. And the proven ability of exercise to ward off stress and depression, while boosting energy and cognitive function, should make prioritising it a no-brainer. The problem is that money allocated to boardroom yoga classes isn’t always well spent. The University of Illinois’s 2018 Workplace Wellness Study followed 5,000 of its employees who were randomly assigned to a health programme or a control group. After a year, it recorded no “significant effects” for outcomes such as absenteism and medical spending.
These findings seem to contradict previous studies that showed similar programmes to work wonders, but the Illinois researchers attributed this to selfselection: employees who were already
leading healthier lifestyles were far more likely to sign up than those who needed the intervention most. Those who would benefit most from meditation classes or a lunchtime run are often those who consider themselves too busy to schedule it in. In the Illinois study, for example, smokers were the least likely to participate, even when tempted with financial incentives. In short, the researchers were careful to point out that this doesn’t conclusively prove that workplace wellness won’t work.
“Exercise always works if you do it,” says Silvano Zanuso, director of Technogym’s medical and scientific department. A Milan University study compared Technogym employees with those of another Italian multinational company and found that absenteeism and the incidence of metabolic syndrome were lower among the former. “Why?” asks Zanuso. “Not because we are inherently better, but because we work in an environment where doing physical activity is easier.”
Part of that is having a well-appointed gym a medicine ball’s throw away. The sight of colleagues going to the gym also normalises healthy lifestyles. “It’s culturally engaging,” says Zanuso, who did t’ai chi this morning and yesterday met vicepresident Pierluigi Alessandri for a 5.30am bike ride. In behavioural psychology, “social proof” – what others do – is one of the most powerful influences. Employees at the other company in the study merely received access to online information about health: not exactly fitspiring.
Of course, motivating your employees is easier when your company has keeping fit at its chiselled core. Zanuso concedes it’s less difficult to make moderately active people more active than it is to make sedentary ones moderately active, even in the idyllic Village. Outside of its campus, Technogym assists its business customers not just with installation but education and facility management: “Otherwise you have a big gym with nobody using it.”
Without this cultural shift, wellness programmes aren’t just a waste of money – they can even be counterproductive. Academics from the Cass Business School and Stockholm University conducted an analysis of such initiatives – published in the book The Wellness Syndrome – which found that they often had little effect beyond making employees feel guilty. They also fed into disturbing cultural prejudices: if you don’t exercise and eat clean, you must be lazy and ill-disciplined. Some initiatives risk tipping the work-life imbalance further still. There’s something quite unsettling about the idea of Google installing sleep pods at its new London HQ.
LESS IS MORE
Modern productivity mania dates back to the late 19th century, when engineerturned-management consultant Frederick Winslow Taylor was hired to improve the efficiency of Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania. Among his many revolutionary ideas – having noted the superior output of some burly, financially incentivised Hungarian labourers – was for employees to shift several times more iron than they did before for the same pay.
The danger is that workplace wellness becomes a euphemistic means of cranking the handle even harder. Take the voguish policy of unlimited paid leave adopted by the likes of Netflix, Linkedin and Virgin. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at some companies, employees can feel pressured into taking less time off than they did previously, fearing that they would miss out on promotion or they won’t have a job to come back to. It’s not so much good HR, then, as good PR. Better, perhaps, to reassure workers that it’s OK to use their full entitlement: a Yougov survey found that a third of UK workers don’t. Do wellness-espousing companies really care about their employees, or just the bottom line? And does it matter if both benefit?
“At a conference, I asked an HR director in finance, ‘Why are you banking guys suddenly into wellbeing?’” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. “He replied, ‘Two words: regrettable turnover.’” The finance company had lost 25-30% of its staff in the recession; those who remained were working longer hours and feeling less secure about their jobs. So, the wellbeing initiative was intended partly to attract new staff, but also to prevent existing ones from burning out. “The HR guy told me, ‘If we sweat the human asset, we’re dead.’”
Cooper prefers to talk about workplace “wellbeing”. “Wellness tends to imply gyms and apples on your desk,” he says. “Wellbeing implies a culture where you feel valued and look forward to going into work, one that helps you work flexibly
and manage your work-life balance, and where trust and recognition of your achievements are part and parcel.” He argues that workplace wellbeing is “more psychological” than physical, although the latter affects the former. Too often, we’re distracted from what’s really vital to our all-round health by the more visible or fashionable trappings. “It’s not about beanbags and ping-pong,” he says.
REASON TO BELIEVE
If your employers truly care about your wellbeing, they should encourage you to spend less time working, however healthy the environment. “The evidence is if you consistently work long hours, you will get ill and it will adversely affect your private life,” says Cooper. This is another trend that we’ve imported from the US: Britons work around 42 hours a week, which is the highest in Europe. However, our output is still around a quarter behind countries such as France and Germany, meaning it takes British workers longer to produce what others achieve in less time.
Presenteeism costs businesses twice as much as absenteeism, and it’s harder to spot than an empty desk. To cure the always-on disease, Volkswagen turns company emails off at night; in January 2017, a law came into effect in France that enshrines employees’ “right to disconnect” and requires companies to set times when emails are prohibited – very French and well intentioned but not necessarily helpful. “You can’t work flexibly if your emails are blocked,” says Cooper. “People are more productive if what they do fits in with their life.”
Cooper has set up a national forum for health and wellbeing at work, comprising more than 35 major employers such as NHS England, BT and Rolls-royce, which meets quarterly to formulate strategies for tackling issues such as long hours or emotionally unintelligent “command and control” line managers. “If they create a long-hours culture, send you emails on a Friday night, or don’t allow you to work flexibly, that’s going to damage you,” he says. “The magic bullet is the line manager.” You can’t change your boss, but your company can – by training them to be more socially sensitive, or by creating an anti-presenteeism culture.
Arguably as important to workplace wellbeing as lunchtime workouts is a culture in which you don’t dread the repercussions if you’re not back from your break “within 59 minutes and 59 seconds”. As Ukactive’s Ward says, “It’s not uncommon to walk into our office at 12.15pm and wonder where everyone is, or how we ever get anything done.” But they do. Leading by example, Ward schedules exercise into his diary, which staff members are able to see; this shows them that it’s OK for them to do the same. Diarising – and public accountability – has also made Ward more likely to keep his gym appointments: “Unless it’s scheduled, it just wouldn’t happen.”
Humans aren’t machines. We’re emotional beings who are more productive when we’re happy. Cooper stresses the role of job satisfaction in workplace wellbeing. This was demonstrated in a study by behavioural economist Dan Ariely, in which subjects built more Lego models when they knew their creations wouldn’t be dismantled immediately afterwards. Meaningful work makes you work harder at it. That is less about the type of job than how you view it: a Yale School of Management study of hospital cleaners – a role that some would regard as menial – found that they felt good about their work; they saw their role as helping patients and supporting doctors.
Indeed, Zanuso believes that this is Technogym’s key strength, too – not the paradisiacal campus, but the fact that its employees buy into the company’s mission statement. Technogym has two purposes, he says: “One is making the company healthier, and the other is making people healthier.” Manaresi, an 18-year veteran of the company, puts it another way: “It gives you a sense of correttezza – of doing good.”
“In the UK, we work the longest hours in Europe – but our productivity lags behind France and Germany”