More than half of UK com­pa­nies now have a well­ness strat­egy, de­signed to keep em­ploy­ees fit, happy and pro­duc­tive. Where are they get­ting their in­spi­ra­tion? And is it more than a to­ken ges­ture from HR?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words | JAMIE MILLAR Il­lus­tra­tion | MICHAŁ BEDNARSKI

Com­pa­nies are jump­ing on the band­wagon, but how can you make it work for you?

Afew em­ploy­ees at the Techn­o­gym Vil­lage in Ce­sena, Italy, are set­ting out for a lunchtime run on a sunny Thursday in June. Not that they need to step out­side the 150,000m² ‘well­ness cam­pus’ to get their daily fit­ness fix – the fa­cil­ity is widely re­garded as the health­i­est head of­fice on the planet. Through the main en­trance and to the right is the T-well­ness Cen­tre – the staff gym and spa. It also dou­bles as the stylish 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 twohour lunch break – em­ploy­ees hop on in­door bikes, tread­mills and row­ers to com­pete with col­leagues, their scores broad­cast on big screens. Techn­o­gym em­ploys full-time per­sonal trainers, but the com­pany encourages other em­ploy­ees to be­come ‘well­ness am­bas­sadors’ by fronting classes. The Vil­lage’s fa­cil­ity man­ager teaches tai chi.

Af­ter work­ing out, staff dine in the T-well­ness Restau­rant, where a lo­cally sourced three-course lunch – for ex­am­ple, cod fil­let with pars­ley and lemon, pas­satelli (a va­ri­ety of pasta na­tive to north­ern Italy) with to­mato and rocket and grilled cour­gette – costs €1. This nom­i­nal fee is im­posed to dis­suade em­ploy­ees from tak­ing too much food and wasting it. Out­side the restau­rant, work­ers sip espres­sos at stand­ing ta­bles, which may be less of a well­ness thing 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 taste of a well­ness utopia. ‘We’re not just sell­ing ma­chines,’ says Techn­o­gym PR di­rec­tor En­rico Manaresi, right-hand man to com­pany pres­i­dent

Ne­rio Alessan­dri. He’s not wrong – the month WH vis­its, Alessan­dri is on the cover

of the Ital­ian edi­tion of Forbes mag­a­zine, curl­ing a branded dumbbell. ‘We’re pro­mot­ing well­ness as a life­style.’

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 re­veal how much of what Techn­o­gym of­fers is pur­chased by cor­po­ra­tions, rather than gyms or in­di­vid­u­als, but he says 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 health­care and 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 been the trend­set­ters. Google’s Search In­side Your­self Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute teaches mind­ful­ness and ‘emo­tional in­tel­li­gence’ to its em­ploy­ees. Opened in 2017, Ap­ple Park, the shiny $5 bil­lion icam­pus in Cal­i­for­nia, boasts a $74 mil­lion fit­ness and well­ness cen­tre span­ning 100,000ft² and a yoga room cov­ered in spe­cially distressed stone from a quarry in Kansas.

But, as with 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. And, ac­cord­ing to the Re­ward & Em­ployee Ben­e­fits As­so­ci­a­tion, nearly half of UK com­pa­nies now have a ‘clearly de­fined well­be­ing strat­egy’, up from less than a third two years ago.

It’s not just cor­po­rate gi­ants, ei­ther: the Fed­er­a­tion of Small Busi­nesses launched a cam­paign with Pub­lic Health Eng­land and men­tal health char­ity Mind in 2017 to im­prove the health of the UK workforce.

‘Com­pa­nies are re­al­is­ing the cost that ill health is hav­ing on their workforce,’ says Steven Ward, CEO† of non-profit group Ukac­tive, which has ket­tle­bells, spin bikes and, thank­fully, show­ers at its Lon­don of­fices. ‘More and more busi­nesses are tak­ing work­place well­ness se­ri­ously,’ he adds. In­deed, it has be­come an in­dus­try in its own right: Ukac­tive re­cently be­stowed its Work­place Well­be­ing of the Year award on Well­work­ing, a com­pany that sup­plies healthy of­fice furniture. The Global Well­ness In­sti­tute val­ues the work­place well­ness mar­ket at £33bn.

That fig­ure is dwarfed by the cost of work­place ill­ness, which a gov­ern­ment pa­per puts at £100bn a year in the UK alone. One in three work­ing-age peo­ple have a longterm health con­di­tion that af­fects their work, while 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 NHS bud­gets.

A bal­anc­ing act

Done prop­erly, work­place well­ness can de­liver healthy re­turns. The Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view es­ti­mated that the re­turn on ‘com­pre­hen­sive, well-run’ pro­grammes can be as high as six to one, mean­ing for ev­ery £1 spent on well­ness, busi­nesses save £6 by re­duc­ing ab­sen­teeism. 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 ab­sen­teeism and med­i­cal spend­ing.

These find­ings seem to con­tra­dict pre­vi­ous stud­ies that showed sim­i­lar pro­grammes to work won­ders, but the Illi­nois re­searchers at­trib­uted this to self-se­lec­tion: em­ploy­ees al­ready lead­ing healthy life­styles were far more likely to sign up than those who needed the in­ter­ven­tion. Those who would ben­e­fit from a med­i­ta­tion class or a lunchtime run are of­ten those who con­sider them­selves too busy to sched­ule it in. How­ever, the re­searchers were keen to point out that this doesn’t con­clu­sively prove that work­place well­ness won’t work.

‘Ex­er­cise al­ways works if you do it,’ says Dr 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 in­ci­dence of meta­bolic syn­drome were lower among the for­mer. ‘Why?’ asks Dr Zanuso. ‘Not be­cause we’re 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 nor­malises healthy life­styles. ‘It’s cul­tur­ally en­gag­ing,’ says Dr Zanuso, who did tai chi this morning and yes­ter­day met vice pres­i­dent 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. Dr Zanuso con­cedes that it’s eas­ier to make moder­ately ac­tive peo­ple more ac­tive than it is to make seden­tary peo­ple 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, too: ‘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 cul­tural prej­u­dices: if you don’t ex­er­cise and eat healthily, 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.

A 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 be­fore, fear­ing that they would miss out on pro­mo­tion or that they won’t have a job to come back to. It’s bet­ter to re­as­sure em­ploy­ees that it’s okay to use their full en­ti­tle­ment – a Yougov sur­vey found that a third of UK work­ers don’t.

Fit for pur­pose?

‘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 be­tween 25% and 30% of its staff dur­ing 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.

Pro­fes­sor 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, 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 vis­i­ble and fash­ion­able trap­pings. ‘It’s not about bean­bags and ping-pong,’ he says.

‘Com­pa­nies are re­al­is­ing the cost ill health has on their workforce’

Rea­son to be­lieve

An em­ployer that truly cares about its staff’s well­be­ing should en­cour­age them to spend less time work­ing, how­ever healthy the en­vi­ron­ment. ‘The ev­i­dence shows that if you con­sis­tently work long hours, you will get ill and it will harm your pri­vate life,’ says Pro­fes­sor 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 less than coun­tries such as France and Ger­many, mean­ing it takes Bri­tish work­ers five days to pro­duce what oth­ers achieve in four.

Pre­sen­teeism (that’s be­ing in the of­fice be­yond your con­tracted work­ing hours) 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, France en­shrined in law

‘Pre­sen­teeism costs busi­nesses twice as much as ab­sen­teeism’

em­ploy­ees’ ‘right to dis­con­nect’ and re­quires com­pa­nies to set times when emails are banned – well-in­ten­tioned, but not nec­es­sar­ily help­ful. ‘You can’t work flex­i­bly if your emails are blocked,’ says Pro­fes­sor Cooper. ‘The ev­i­dence is that peo­ple are more pro­duc­tive if what they do fits in with their life.’

Pro­fes­sor Cooper has set up a na­tional fo­rum for health and well­be­ing at work, com­pris­ing 35 ma­jor em­ploy­ers, such as NHS Eng­land, BT and Roll­sroyce, which meets to de­velop strate­gies for tack­ling is­sues such as long hours and old­fash­ioned ‘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 where 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 okay 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 won’t hap­pen.’

Hu­mans aren’t ma­chines. We’re emo­tional be­ings who are more pro­duc­tive when we’re happy. Pro­fes­sor Cooper stresses the role of job sat­is­fac­tion in work­place well­be­ing. This was demon­strated in a study by be­havioural econ­o­mist Pro­fes­sor 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. And it’s less about the type of job than how you view it: a Yale School of Man­age­ment study of hospi­tal clean­ers – a job that some would re­gard as me­nial – found that, on the whole, they felt good about their work; they saw their role as in­te­gral to help­ing pa­tients and sup­port­ing doc­tors.

In­deed, Dr Zanuso be­lieves 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”, the other is mak­ing peo­ple health­ier.’ Manaresi, an 18-year veteran of Techn­o­gym, puts it an­other way: ‘It gives you a sense of cor­ret­tezza – of do­ing good.’

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