Friday 27 April 2018

Run, fat staff, run

Growing numbers of firms have introduced ‘wellness’ programmes. Now the State has joined in. Is it all a bit Big Brother?

Work out while you work: Health minister Leo Varadkar is encouraging workplace fitness programmes
Work out while you work: Health minister Leo Varadkar is encouraging workplace fitness programmes

Gabrielle Monaghan

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, the hero Winston Smith huffs and puffs his way through compulsory morning exercises enforced through omnipresent two-way telescreens that the regime of Big Brother uses to monitor the grim lives of the citizens of Oceania.

The western workplace is not exactly the totalitarian state depicted by the novel and there is no torture meted out to staff (unless you count endless pointless meetings).

Instead, modern employees are willingly embracing a corporate culture where health and wellbeing are no longer a private matter, but one determined by their employers’ quest to have bodies fit enough to withstand longer hours at the office and be more productive.

Lunch is no longer for wimps, as Gordon Gekko declared in the film Wall Street. It’s for running with your colleagues to burn off that morning muffin, spending the hour doing the downward dog in an office yoga class with your sweaty boss, or tracking how many steps you’ve taken with the FitBit so thoughtfully doled out to staff by the HR manager.

Forget Thursday evening drinks — mindfulness, the Buddhist concept of taking your time, considering the now, experiencing the moment — is the new happy hour.

Now the State, the country’s single biggest employer with nearly 290,000 staff, is joining the raft of companies that have jumped aboard the wellness wagon, courtesy of fitness buff and Minister for Health Leo Varadkar.

The Cabinet last week signed off the new bill that will compel public sector companies and agencies to introduce a health and wellbeing policy and create one of Varadkar’s Healthy Workplace initiatives.

These range from requiring workplaces such as hospitals and garda stations to set up a walking or running group, a smoking cessation programme, and to offer healthy options in staff canteens.

A spokesperson for the department of health told the Irish Independent that the initiatives, while voluntary, are about providing an environment where people can be more active during their working day, particularly if they have sedentary jobs. Some could be as simple as encouraging staff to use the stairs instead of the lift.

The minister hopes to emulate the success of private companies such as Bank of Ireland, where more than 10,000 staff have signed up for activities such as lunchtime yoga, couch to 5k runs, or carrying a pedometer in a bid to clock up 10,000 steps a day.

“This approach makes pure business sense for the public and private sectors,” Varadkar said. “We are putting this on a statutory basis to send a clear message that we mean business in improving the nation’s health.”

But should our lifestyle choices really be the business of our employers? It all depends on whether individual employees are keen for companies to help them kick bad habits or whether they view wellness programmes as an intrusion into their personal lives, according to Peter Cosgrove, a director at recruitment firm Cpl.

“The studies show that we are sitting down too long and that Ireland is one of the most obese countries in Europe,” he says.

But the introduction of health and wellbeing programmes “are being linked a bit more to the Nanny state. Not everyone wants to be told to climb the Four Peaks and they can absolutely go overboard. It won’t work if it feels like forced exercise. In Russia, they had an initiative where if you did 30 squats in front of a ticket machine you didn’t have to pay for a travel ticket. You could either think this is a clever way to get people exercising or think it’s too Big Brother.”

Wellness schemes tap “into the guilt we all sometimes feel, because we’re sitting for eight hours a day, eating at our desks while we focus on a screen, and are not even calling people but texting and emailing them, and not moving around.”

The surge in health and wellbeing schemes in the workplace coincides nicely with the boom in upmarket personal wellness.

Cold-pressed green juices and spiralizers promoted by posh wellness bloggers are usurping fancy cars and designer handbags as the latest status symbol of the privileged classes.

It is the poor, who cannot afford a diet of avocado on gluten-free toast, who are most at risk of the obesity epidemic that the World Health Organization predicts will see Ireland as the fattest country in the world by 2030.

Workplace wellness is a big industry unto itself, thanks to an army of organisations selling health and wellbeing programmes to employers. and makers of wearable fitness tracking devices. FitBit, the leader of the $3bn fitness tracking industry, event went public on the New York Stock Exchange in June.

Getting employees to buy into this wellness zeitgeist can help companies cut absenteeism and boost productivity, or so the theory goes. Some 11m days are lost through absenteeism every year at a cost of €1.5bn, according to Ibec, the employers’ body. The rate of sick leave is twice as high in the public sector.

with gardai and health services among the worst offenders. In the private sector, four in ten office-bound workers are not physically active at all during the working day, a survey of 1,000 employees showed. The poll was carried out by the Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF), an Ibec body that works with government, industry and health professionals to tackle obesity, which held Ireland’s first annual National Workplace Wellbeing Day in March.

For the event, 180 companies ran some kind of health initiative and the day was begun with a series of early morning pop-up exercise classes for commuters on the streets of Dublin city.

Muireann Cullen, the manager of NHF, says that no employee is ever forced to take part in a wellness initiative.

“Some people might not be comfortable doing these things at work,” says Cullen, who works at her own standing desk. Employers have to “get employees on board at an early stage and letting them take the lead. There’s no point just introducing yoga or medication if nobody will turn up.”

One of the few voices of dissent against this relentless drive to impose health lifestyles on employees are Carl Cederstrom from Stockholm University and Andre Spicer from London’s City University. In their new book, The Wellness Syndrome, the young academics say that companies’ motives for introducing wellness programmes are, at best, well-intended efforts to rectify a corporate culture where staff are expected to work longer hours, be available at all times through smartphones, and endure increasingly insecure contracts.

These programmes are blurring the line between work and personal lives even further, they argue.

Employers are also confusing physical fitness with professional performance, the authors say. To be management material, you must be a “corporate athlete”, or just as eager to compete in Tough Mudder obstacle challenges with the boss as you are to stay in the office long after the rest of the workforce has gone home. 

The message to those who help themselves too many times to the office cake round? Shape up or ship out.

Irish Independent

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