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Wellness at work goes mainstream

From standup comedy classes to free massages – wellness at work goes mainstream

It’s not just corporate giants like Google that run impressive wellbeing schemes. Smaller businesses are coming up with innovative ways to keep staff happy

Google employee Andrea Janus demonstrates the use of the mini-putt green on the balcony at the  Google office in Toronto.
 Google employee Andrea Janus uses the mini-putt green on the balcony at the firm’s office in Toronto. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

When it comes to looking after people’s health and wellbeing in the workplace a complimentary bowl of fruit no longer cuts it. The corporate wellness industry is worth over $40bn (£31m) worldwide according to the Global Wellness Institute with companies looking after their workers’ wellbeing in a much more holistic way.

Tech giants such as Google and Facebook are renowned for their approach to employees’ health and wellbeing. Google’s offices around the world boast everything from rock climbing walls and mini golf courses to sleep pods. It also offers staff on-site fitness centres, an array of healthy food options, financial planning advice, substantial parental leave entitlements, medical support and complementary therapies as well as personal development and learning opportunities tailored to individuals’ interests.

Expedia, which was recently voted the best employer for work-life balance in the UK according to Glassdoor, also offers employees some impressive perks, including a travel allowance of between £6,000 and £10,000. Meanwhile, to help its workers combat stress, the Hilton hotel group recently drafted in Arianna Huffington’s startup, Thrive Global, which provides wellness training programmes. Hilton employees are being encouraged to build in time in the workday to “recharge”, the company said in a statement.

“Employers are beginning to understand that a healthy body makes for a healthy mind, and creates a better community and improves output from their teams,” says Jo Allison, an analyst at behavioural insights company Canvas8. “This is important because guidance in workplace wellness needs to come from the top. If the boss cares, then others give themselves permission to care too.”

British firms are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year because of sickness, according to a report from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, so businesses have a clear interest in keep their staff fit and healthy. And with 31% of firms planning to implement a health and wellbeing strategy according to one survey, wellness is moving into the mainstream.

Public Health England CEO Duncan Selbie has recommended that firms do more to boost staff fitness. But in a tough financial climate, can smaller companies compete with the largesse of bigger competitors? Fortunately, promoting the wellbeing of staff doesn’t need to cost a fortune, and some smaller business owners have come up with interesting offers that go beyond the occasional yoga class at lunchtime.

Some startups swap their health and wellbeing services with other small firms. This has been the approach of Livewire Kitchen, a company that provides nutritious food designed to reinvigorate office workers. Co-founder Zoe Watkins not only feeds her staff healthy meals for free, but has created a reciprocal arrangement with a local complementary therapy centre that offers massages.

Zoe Watkins, Livewire founder (second from left) and her team
Pinterest
 Zoe Watkins, Livewire founder (second from left) and her team. Photograph: Livewire

The cost of doing such an “in-kind” swap is not nearly as high as it would be to buy the service. Investing in extras such as perks for staff when money is tight is “nigh on impossible” Watkins says, but because her intention is to grow fast, she has decided to invest in a human resources consultant. HR support might be standard for a bigger company, but firms on smaller budgets often have poor records on their support for workers. “Our staff have access to the consultant for any issues or problems rather than having to always come to us,” says Watkins. “HR is complex, and we wanted to do everything right.”

Making sure work doesn’t encroach into time at home or on holidays requires nothing but a degree of discipline, and of course, backing from the top. Media company MediaCom has a ban on emails after 7pm and online insurance broker Simply Business puts an auto-delete on employees’ emails when they go on leave so they aren’t bothered by colleagues “just” wanting a quick answer to a question.

Market research firm Space Doctors, which has 27 staff across its offices in Brighton, London and Singapore, gives employees one salaried week every year of “back to school” time, in which they are funded to do a fulfilling course or activity they’ll enjoy.

“One colleague did a creative writing course. Another did standup [comedy],” Space Doctors associate director Rosie Picton says. “It gives people a sense of their own identity, and offers us all the freedom to think differently about our approach.” It’s a major investment in staff wellbeing that has to be re-evaluated annually, but she is convinced that in the three years it’s been in place, it has worked far better in terms of making people feel valued and encouraged to stay than, for example, requiring that they wait a more standard four years for a longer sabbatical.

While massages, free food and a week’s training course of your choice might seem very enticing, there are more fundamental aspects of an employee’s wellbeing that a company can support. Smaller companies can use the services of employee incentives firms, such as BHSF, Perkbox and Rewards Getaway. These types of firms can offer staff benefits such legal advice and round the clock access to a GP at a low cost to employers. In this way, building service engineers JS Wright has introduced a programme that gives its staff and their families confidential legal advice, bereavement support, a 24-hour-GP service, counselling, an online health-check, nutritional advice and various discounts – costing the company just £5 per employee.

Being able to reassure staff that if they or their family are ill, there is immediate medical support was “a no-brainer”, says the JS Wright’s human resources adviser Steph Coffey. “It’s to keep people with us, to show we appreciate them, make their pay stretch a bit further with the discounts, and it helps the company because they don’t go off sick as much,” she adds.

Get the fundamentals of looking after people right and you might not need that yoga class – indeed, there are some people who will never countenance pulling on Lycra at work. Brian Hall, managing director at the not-for-profit employee benefits agency BHSF, says: “The stuff that really matters is mental health, quick access to a GP and if necessary, a specialist, and next most important is education around for example, nutrition, hydration and improving your health.”

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