From cut-price gym fees to stop-smoking programmes: The dark side of staff health schemes

The stick thin, gym-toned office worker is something of a new phenomenon
Remember the look of successful businessmen of the past? With a self-satisfied grin and a greasy face, they’d sit down to enjoy a fine meal, with a swollen gut testing the strength of their belt. To no one’s dismay, these rounded figures have largely disappeared from the corporate scene.

Still, we shouldn’t be overenthusiastic about their successors. These slim go-getters have come to populate today’s health-fixated corporation. We can’t tell if they’re about to execute a deal or take to the climbing wall at the local gym. While this new workout ethic raises health awareness, it also takes focus away from the more pressing issue of unhealthy work conditions.

BODY OVER MIND
For a long time, the corporate world was less interested in the body than the mind. It was from the mind that the big innovative ideas sprang. The body was merely seen as a brute machine designed to endure long hours at the desk. Today, we are obsessed with the body: we spend long hours learning to listen to its signals, finding new ways to respond fittingly. And the corporate world has not just followed this trend; it has been a pioneering force.

Employee wellness programmes have exploded. Corporations in the US spend over $6bn (£3.74bn) annually on them, and they are offered by 70 per cent of Fortune 250 companies. The initiatives range from cut-price gym fees to stop smoking programmes. Sometimes, to ensure health goals are met, staff are offered wellness coaches. At other times they are introduced to “life-logging”, a technology keeping track of all bodily movements. Another trend that has emerged is the “walking meeting”. Leave the board room, and take to the footpath for that all-important up-date.

A FUTILE CAUSE?
There are benefits to these programmes, but perhaps not the ones we would usually think of. Some companies offer everything from corporate yoga sessions to the treadmill desk (which allows you to work while you work-out). Others have given employees the chance to deduct the cost of their personal trainer or gym membership as a work expense. And it’s now much easier to find fruit around the office.

What is less certain, however, is whether wellness programmes have actually made employees any healthier. A recent study by the consultancy RAND found a limited interest among employees in enrolling themselves in the schemes. Less than half of those offered health screening took up the offer. Of those who were identified as having a health problem, not even a fifth accepted the invitation.

But perhaps most striking is that those who actually did engage in these employee wellness programmes showed very limited improvements in their health. People who volunteered for the weight loss programme lost about half a kilogram.

THE WELLNESS SYNDROME
So why do companies continue to spend money on these programmes? The answer is not so much about building healthy bodies as it is about compensating employees for increasingly unhealthy work patterns.

Work hours are extending, contracts are increasingly insecure, and workloads have intensified. It’s no surprise that staff health suffers. At best, wellness programmes are well-intended but futile attempts to remedy this. At worst, they’re a way to normalise today’s punishing work conditions.

This is what we call the “wellness syndrome”, where an obsessive focus on health is used to sweep more pressing issues under the carpet. If we are serious about the health of staff, we need to change the way work is designed. This could involve limiting hours, providing people with more job security, or avoiding overloading them with pointless tasks. The danger is that ham-fisted workplace wellness programmes are just another pressing demand which eats into your private life – and ultimately your health.

Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom are authors of The Wellness Syndrome, due to be published by Polity Press in January.

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