Why wellness at work may not be healthy

Employees are increasingly being encouraged by their bosses to make healthier choices. No bad thing, you might think, but all this wholesomeness could turn out to do more harm than good.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 27 Jan 2016

Remember the talent wars? Those heady pre-austerity days of the mid-noughties when companies were falling over themselves to come up with new ways of hanging on to their best and brightest people and dissuade them from jumping ship to a rival firm.

Well, they've been a long time gone but the talent wars are back, and this time they're about much more than mere money or even career development - there's a whole new holistic health front opening up and it's one that no self-respecting employer can afford to ignore. Welcome to the wonderful world of wellness.

What is wellness? Like many a workplace innovation, it hails from the US, where big firms have begun to actively encourage their employees to make healthier lifestyle choices. Studies show that around 70% of Fortune 500 companies have well-developed wellness programmes. Typically these are aimed at helping people stop smoking, lose weight and take more exercise, but wellness may also cross over into the previously no-go areas of psychological wellbeing, thanks to the equally fashionable tenets of mindfulness meditation.

Of course we Brits are naturally more sceptical than our American cousins, and we also have the publicly funded, cradle-to-grave NHS on hand to take care of our medical needs. So you might expect us to be rather less keen on the idea of employers taking such a lively interest in what we get up to when we aren't at work.

Not so, says Dr John Briffa, wellness consultant and author of A Great Day at the Office. In a world where everyone is connected to everyone else - and thus effectively always in work mode, whether they are in the office or not - many people now recognise they need help and are only too pleased for their companies to provide it.

'My clients are not cynical. No one would focus on wellness if there wasn't a problem. When you work hard, lifestyle habits can get pushed to one side, work can get a bit overwhelming. There are personal costs - people feel they aren't getting much back and find they have nothing left for weekends or family holidays. And there are organisational costs - employees are less effective and people leave because they see what is happening to the senior people above them.'

In other words, wellness is just the latest manifestation of progress, that fundamental drive that human beings have to improve their lot and without which we might all still be living in draughty caves and having to catch woolly mammoths when we fancied a steak supper.

So although we put in long hours and spend more and more of our time working or thinking about work, we are also increasingly demanding. In comparison with previous generations we want more - not just a steady income and a roof over our heads but a great job, fulfilling work and a happy and varied home life too.

Why shouldn't progressive employers help their workers to achieve these goals? On the face of it everyone wins if, by making better and more informed lifestyle choices, people feel healthier, work harder and are less likely to require costly medical interventions in later life. And with the diseases of affluence like obesity, cardiac problems and diabetes set to rocket (all of which are more amenable to long-term lifestyle-based prevention than post-onset treatment with drugs), wellness really does look to many like a no-brainer.

'I talk about sleep patterns and diet, for example - maintaining a stable blood-sugar level is key for consistent performance, so if you eat fewer carbohydrates then just about everybody will feel better for it. There's no boiling chrysanthemums because it's good for your chi. I look at the data and show people what really works, interventions which make people think and behave differently. There are no losers,' says Briffa.

But some observers have identified a darker side to wellness, a wellness paradox if you like. Besides the obvious Big Brother concerns over employers monitoring how we spend our leisure time - not to mention getting into the more personal parts of our minds - there is a danger that in focusing too heavily on doing things that are supposed to make us feel better, we could all end up doing the opposite and making ourselves feel worse.

'Everyone knows that they should probably eat better and exercise more,' says Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, and co-author with Carl Cederstrom of a new book on the subject, The Wellness Syndrome (Polity Press, £14.99).

'But the government and doctors already tell us that. If employers join in too it just adds to the pressure, becoming an overwhelming command and making people feel guilty. It backfires.'

Take those 70% of Fortune 500 firms with wellness programmes. According to Spicer, 80% of their employees do not use them and even those who do don't achieve very much. 'People who want to lose weight only lose 1kg on average. The programmes are not effective.'

So rather as we watch TV chefs preparing delicious healthy food while what we're actually scoffing is a nutritionally dubious ready meal, workplace wellness can end up as an unsatisfactory proxy for trying to feel healthier without putting in any of the required hard work.

There is also a sense in which wellness can be seen as a sop for jobs whose inherent rewards are under threat, says Spicer. This may account, he reckons, for the rising popularity of mindfulness, a meditative technique aimed at encouraging harassed execs beset by ever-rising demands on their time to live in the moment and worry less about what they can't control.

Despite - or perhaps because of - its counter-cultural whiff, mindfulness has proved a big hit with companies as diverse as General Mills, Procter & Gamble and KPMG. Everyone from the Huffington Post's famously hyperactive founder, Arianna Huffington, to Mind Candy's uber-hip progenitor, Michael Acton-Smith, has proclaimed its virtues. The most popular course offered at Google's legendary Googleplex is not about technology or programming, but mindfulness.

'There is quite a lot of evidence that at an individual level, mindfulness can help with anxiety,' admits Spicer. But where is all this anxiety coming from in the first place? 'Mindfulness is about focus, which we used to get from our jobs. The reward of getting lost in an absorbing work task. But now there are so many distractions that you never get an uninterrupted 15 minutes. You could see mindfulness as a sticking plaster.'

Nor is the case against wellness only pragmatic. If wellness becomes a 'moral imperative', he says, akin to the way that fashion magazines promote super skinny models despite all the evidence that real people don't look like that, it can also lead to new and insidious forms of discrimination.

'Some organisations have moved from, for example, banning smoking to banning smokers. And people who are slightly overweight can face similar discrimination, even in jobs where it has no relevance at all.' A recent study of 1,000 British employers commissioned by employment law firm Crosslands seems to back this up. It found that overweight people were perceived as being less productive, and that nearly half of those surveyed would be less inclined to hire people if they were obese.

Of course the simple and apparently self-evident basis of wellness - that healthy and happy workers are more engaged, have less time off and are ultimately more productive, is hardly a new one. The Roman poet Juvenal identified the correlation between mental and physical wellbeing (and the desirability of having both in order to live a good life) getting on for 2,000 years ago, when he wrote the line Mens sana in corpore sano - a healthy mind in a healthy body. So why has the idea of workplace wellness taken off so suddenly in more recent times?

'It's the latest fad in organisational psychology,' says Dimitrios Tsivrikos, lecturer in business and consumer psychology at UCL. But while it has been shown that people who feel well perform better at work, there is a big difference between individual and group behaviour, he reckons. 'When people set their own goals and work hard to meet them, they are happy. But if those goals are imposed upon them it's a different matter. That's like saying: "You better feel well, it's for the good of the company."'

Another more high-tech reason is the rise of wearable technology and activity trackers such as the Jawbone Up, Fitbit and the Misfit Shine. Consumer tech companies are the new arbiters of popular culture, and these sleek gadgets irresistibly combine fashion, tech and our increasing interest in monitoring ourselves. They are proving to be enormously popular - by some estimates getting on for 20% of smartphone users have already downloaded some kind of health or fitness app and, just as with the rise of social media, what we do in our own time today we expect to be doing at work tomorrow.

'We all love our smartphones and we engage very readily with health apps because they integrate so easily into our daily lives,' says Tsivrikos. But the novelty and excitement can distract us from more fundamental issues. 'We are fascinated by the technology but we don't understand that wellness is an outcome not a process.' Measuring the number of steps we take in a day or the amount and quality of our sleep is just as likely to make us more anxious than less. 'You can't force someone to feel well.'

But from an employer's point of view these arguments can sound like semantics - another example of the age-old issue of people who don't like something finding high-minded reasons to resist change. 'We create the environment where people feel empowered to make decisions to improve their wellbeing. Lots of employers really see the value in it, and not just big corporations but smaller businesses too,' says Ben McGannan, managing director of Wellbeing People.

His firm provides mobile kiosks so that employees can give themselves a DIY 'health MOT', an approach that he says can really make a difference, especially to those groups which might otherwise not take much interest. 'Take a typical 40-year-old man, someone who might not engage with his own health very much. He might even feel ill but not go to the doctor. Standing in one of our kiosks can seem like a bit of fun, and if he does discover he's got sky-high blood pressure we might have empowered him to do something about it. We do get calls from people like that.'

'There is a move towards positive wellness - prevention rather than cure. We're inundated with enquiries,' agrees Dr Michael Sinclair, clinical director of the City Psychology Group. 'There is a bottom line for companies - they want their employees to be well and happy, but they also want to reduce costs and make more money. But there are advantages all round if it is done properly.'

That means being careful to avoid stigmatising those who don't wish to take part, as well as being clear on the agenda and wider implications. One of the less altruistic motivations of the move to wellness is a big push from the private health insurance companies, says Anurag Gupta, a former medical practitioner and now healthcare technology analyst at Gartner.

'In the past the only way that insurers could control their costs was on the supply side - by squeezing the hospitals to get a better deal. But now they can work on the demand side too.' And they do - most big private health insurance providers like Pru Health and United offer wellness platforms for their corporate customers, many of them based on the widespread principle of gamification. Thus employees can sign up to exercise or weight-loss programmes that encourage them to compete with colleagues for the best results, just like participants in an online multiplayer video game. In return, employers get a discount on their premiums - or at least a smaller rise.

Whether that ends up as a fun way to a healthier lifestyle, or an Orwellian nightmare, will depend on the individuals concerned and the spirit in which it is presented to them. 'If these programmes are used as a quasi-punishment then that will be problematic,' says Briffa. 'You have to avoid that and sell them on the positives.'

One final aspect that is still very much in flux is the question of data. IBM has just signed deals with Apple and several other wearable tech firms that will make the data collected from all that health and wellness monitoring kit available to doctors and insurance companies. Doubtless this will be a boon to actuaries, but it's unclear what's in it for the individuals whose vital statistics - from BMI and blood pressure to how much faster they've been pedalling the exercise bike recently - are thus harvested.

Will bosses be able to resist the inevitable temptations to use what they know in potentially dubious ways? 'Data is still like the wild west,' says Gupta. 'What happens when someone isn't performing well and gets fired? Can their wellness programme data be used as evidence? How will it be handled legally? We don't know.'

Whatever we make of wellness as individuals and employers, it behoves us all to get to grips with the idea that our lifestyle choices are of increasing interest and value to everyone from Google and the government downwards.

You may think it's just another HR fad but it isn't, says Gupta. The sheer levels of investment from both the state and private enterprise that are emerging will see to that. 'We live in a data economy now. Leveraging data to improve performance is not going to go away.'


People don't trust their employers' motivations

Bosses don't take part, leading to a 'them and us' divide

Can be seen as punishment for lifestyle choices that are irrelevant to work


Emphasise what's in it for employees not just for the company

Reward those who do take part, but avoid penalising those who do not

Be absolutely clear about what wellness data will be used for and by whom.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime