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

Men's Health (UK) - - In This Issue - Words by Jamie Millar – Pho­tog­ra­phy by Rowan Fee

Com­pany “well­ness strate­gies” are on the rise. But are they look­ing af­ter you or their as­sets?


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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”

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