WELLNESS AT WORK
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?
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.’