Health and wellbeing: Don't go for low-hanging fruit

The most popular H&W initiatives risk leaving many people behind and missing the point

Fruit and health and wellbeing: two things that go together perfectly. Start talking about ‘low-hanging fruit’ however, and you’re into very different territory and a knotty HR issue. For while health and wellbeing has experienced something of a meteoric rise up the corporate agenda, the majority of firms still have some way to go.

The H&W nut many have yet to crack, agree experts, is avoiding a tokenistic approach and steering clear of a strategy that picks off the low-hanging fruit of easy-to-offer health perks, which mainly reach and appeal to employees who are already in pretty good shape. The phrase ‘preaching to the converted’ is also apt.

The majority of H&W schemes still headline on the generic offer of gym membership accompanied by health screenings and/or insurance. The effect can be an expectation to be healthier, but with little support in actually achieving this. Which can make employees feel so pressured to pursue a perfect, gym advert body that they disengage completely.

“If employers are to avoid adding pressure they must make sure they introduce wellness benefits in a careful and intelligent manner,” says Luke Prankard, practice lead for health and wellbeing at Thomsons Online Benefits. “If we take gym memberships as an example, take-up data indicates that these only really appeal to employees already interested in improving their health. The critical challenge is reaching those who are less motivated to change, and engaging them.”

Head of wellbeing at Reward Gateway Lucy Tallick agrees. In her experience when a business only offers a gym membership it typically reaps about a 6% uptake. “Not everyone can jump straight in to exercising at the gym,” she says. “Someone might have a poor diet and low self-esteem so joining a gym through work and not attending will only make them feel worse. This person is more likely to introduce smaller lifestyle changes – walking to work and exercising at home – long before they want to join a gym. It's very unlikely that just by subsidising a membership you will get this person to join the gym.”

So how might employers rectify a tokenistic approach? Health and wellbeing experts are unanimous that personalisation and choice are the answer. Reward Gateway, for instance, is practising what it preaches with a ‘wellbeing pot’ rather than a blanket subsidy, enabling individuals to choose where to spend their allocated budget (£500). This benefit has seen an 81% uptake.

“People have used it for everything from joining the National Trust and the British Library to hypnotherapy and boot camps,” says Tallick. “It gives everyone the freedom of choice. You should never offer just a gym membership alone – wellbeing is incredibly broad and not just physical but mental and financial as well.”

Simon Humphris, co-founder of 9toLife, argues that to truly crack this conundrum companies should employ ‘wellness directors’ who deliver personalised advice and action plans. “The dark underbelly of H&W is those who aren’t yet being touched by initiatives,” he says. “You can’t ram it down people’s throats or make it compulsory. The only way to motivate those people is by putting specialists in that can help people form new and healthier habits. If they are not already inclined an app or poster won’t appeal.”

Unfortunately most HR directors are only interested in ticking the H&W box so they can “talk and tweet about something without necessarily having a programme that is effective”, according to Humphris. While he’s convinced that in future a company wellness director will be commonplace, currently it’s a struggle to persuade employers to make the investment.

More encouragingly, there are increasing numbers of organisations occupying a middle ground. They realise that simply offering gym membership, health insurance or a lunchtime yoga class doesn’t cut it. Smiths News and Orbit Developments, two large employers in the northwest of England, are shining examples. They have recently forged a partnership with Leisure Trust, launching a programme called actilife. Every employee who takes part gets a health assessment at the start and is then given a wearable activity tracker, which syncs with an app on their phone and a website. Recognising that technology often only appeals to the already health conscious or tech-savvy, the programme also gives access to a trained coach and group challenges.

Similarly, Atos decided to overhaul its H&W offering after seeing “horrific” take-up of discounted gym membership. The programme is in its early stages but so far employees are proving much more receptive, reports senior HR adviser Clare Hunt. She puts this down to choice: “It’s not just about the gym, not everyone is interested in that. We now offer all sorts of outdoor activities, online initiatives and bootcamps… That said, while everyone has access we would never pressurise people. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” she says.

Sue Gregory, HR manager at law firm Haseltine Lake, agrees that avoiding any kind of pressure or shaming is essential. She’s recently launched a programme called HL Well! Before the launch she carried out extensive research about what staff wanted and the resounding answer was a laid back approach with “nothing too heavy or structured”.

As a result, each month the firm takes a theme, with a host of optional activities. One month was ‘healthy eating’ and Gregory shared articles, hosted discussions, ran a healthy bakeoff event, and made small changes to the working day such as offering sushi, sandwiches, and nuts, as well as biscuits, in meetings. Another month was ‘let’s get moving’ where employees were “nudged” to try an incremental change to their regular routine, such as using the stairs, standing meetings and phone calls, and lunchtime walks.

“Walking meetings are a great way to be less sedentary without using the dreaded terms ‘exercise’ or ‘gym’,” agrees HR consultant at Capital Law Cathryn Foreman. “10- to 15-minute walks around the block in fresh air, with a colleague, can be both productive and support wellbeing.”

There’s another important reason companies must wise up to the limitations of tokenistic initiatives. Not only does such an approach alienate most of a typical workforce. Unthinkingly and casually presenting just one model of health, and one mode of achieving it, can also inadvertently exert pressure on people and compromise their mental health, says head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies Stephen Bevan.

For Bevan most H&W strategies are far too skewed towards the low-hanging fruit of physical wellbeing, often completely ignoring the root of many workplace wellbeing issues: mental health. “Workplace health promotion can, ironically, have a negative effect on wellbeing by highlighting an ‘ideal’ model of the super-fit and super-resilient employee to which many feel unable to aspire,” he says. “The emphasis on physical fitness that many programmes has can increase stigma among those with long-term illness, disability or other conditions such as obesity or mental health problems.

Most programmes are a lot more comfortable shouting about physical, rather than psychological health. My worry is that organisations are only really dealing with the easy part.”

According to Pamela Gellatly, founder and chair of Healthcare RM, open discussion and education are what is needed. H&W programmes that promote the image of a “perfect” employee are damaging because they send the message that you are a “bad” employee if you suffer from stress, mental health conditions or physical limitations.

She says: “We need to stop talking about [mental health in particular] being a problem and start normalising the subject. It is normal for us to feel stressed, stress is good for us.

"Anxiety is common for most of us at some point in work and socially. Low mood or depression are also normal,” she adds.

Gellatly argues that H&W programmes should focus on first educating employees about the link between their physical and mental health and, in turn, their performance at work. Experts agree that the majority of people (estimated at between 60% and 80% of workers i.e. the “unconverted”) do not understand this link, therefore the value of initiatives is often lost on them.

“H&W is a personal responsibility and people need to be aware that there are implications for them personally, and potentially to their ability to work, if they choose not to take ownership for looking after their health,” says Gellatly. “If we continue to bombard people with the latest fashionable benefit, while it may work for some, it will encourage others to disengage.