Is top down wellbeing a turn off?

Written by Carl Laidler, Director of Wellbeing at Health Shield

The government recently announced a strategy to tackle obesity that includes banning adverts for unhealthy food, ending ‘buy one get one free’ deals and making calorie labelling mandatory. While much of this has been on the cards for a while, the urgency to tackle the issue has accelerated due to the links between obesity and an increased risk from Covid-19.

However, questions are already being asked if this is the right way to get the nation to lose the pounds and whether it will go the way of many other health-focused government interventions which ended up on the scrapheap of history. It’s also food for thought for HR professionals – many top down health and wellbeing initiatives fail to make the intended impact and lead to companies merely paying lip service to employee wellbeing.

There’s no doubting the UK is facing an obesity problem. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity, one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese and obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion a year. Now it’s been proven that being excessively overweight can increase the risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19, it was only a matter of time before the government took action.

Suzy Glaskie, a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and founder of Peppermint Wellness who also contributes expert content for Breeze, Health Shield’s online wellness platform, says the government strategy is a good start, but more needs to be done. “On the one hand it’s positive the government is taking this approach, however, it’s really just tinkering around the edges,” she says. “I work with people who are so steeped in decades of junk food eating that it’s almost impossible for them to make healthy choices without a lot of support. Helping people to retrieve their health involves so much more than listing calories on a menu.”

Just ticking the box

There are a number of parallels between the government’s approach and what’s happening within corporate wellness. While a top down approach to workplace wellbeing at least suggests the topic is somewhere on the board’s agenda, it can often mean a firm is merely ticking boxes and there is a disconnect between what leaders think they are providing and what an employee believes they are receiving.

Much of this comes down to communication. If a health and wellbeing intervention is imposed by senior leaders with limited attempt to engage, explain or discuss, and if the reality of working at the company is different to the desired aim of the intervention, it becomes very easy for employees to disengage and in some cases to become demotivated.

Employee research should be undertaken before driving anything from above. Don’t just act on a whim or take any big steps without sense-checking it with the reality on the ground. Once all stakeholders are aligned, it’s then about creating an experience that flows through every touchpoint of the company.

Of course, getting this right doesn’t happen overnight. Last year, we conducted research among SME businesses which revealed the reasons why they didn’t implement broader health and wellbeing support. While the top reason cited was the cost of implementing these kind of programmes at 48%, the next biggest reason was the time it took to do so at 25%. However, our survey also looked at employee perceptions around health and wellbeing and it found that 81% of SME workers believe this kind of support was important to them when looking for a new job, which shows companies ignore this issue at their peril.

Not so simple

Some senior leaders may not think it’s their responsibility to improve the health of their workforce, despite the fact studies show that healthy employees tend to be productive employees. However, the root cause of issues like obesity and unhealthy eating can be complicated and some may lead back to a person’s working environment. For example, lack of sleep can be a risk factor for obesity and sleep deprivation can in turn be caused by stress and anxiety in the workplace. Factors are often interlinked and solving them isn’t as easy as banning chocolate from the company vending machine or getting free fruit in once a week.

Taking a holistic view is important, says Suzy. “Unhealthy habits are really hard to break and people need support through the messy process of behaviour change,” she explains. “We need to look at this issue holistically and we need to empower people to help them thrive.”

Rather than copying the government by adopting a top down approach to wellbeing, companies should tackle employee health in a way that truly takes into consideration the complexity and challenges involved in encouraging people to live healthier lives.