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I have some unpleasant news: your employer is not your buddy. Not that your managers actively dislike you, but their interest in your health is mostly motivated by the bottom line. As Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher, noted pragmatically: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
This business truth — and the revelation that employee illness cost the UK economy an estimated £81.3bn last year — partly explains the creeping medicalisation of the workplace. Matt Hancock, the UK’s health secretary, was not the first to say, as he did last November, that employers had an obligation to help the National Health Service change its culture from cure (expensive) to the prevention of sickness (much cheaper). Then he also suggested, among other things, doling out free fruit.
However, while health initiatives are welcomed by some workers and can benefit them, they also pose an unconsidered threat to personal autonomy, itself a factor in wellbeing.
Employers already have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of people under their watch, but a new climate of workplace nudging is being encouraged.
This is not necessarily a good thing. We should be cautious: just as society failed to understand how much personal data we were collectively handing over to technology companies, we are failing to grasp how much control of our personal sphere we are conceding to those who pay our wages. This gradual surrender of privacy and autonomy is documented in such books as Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It).
Let us consider the following document: Physical Activity, Healthy Eating and Healthier Weight — A Toolkit for Employers. It emerged from Public Health England in spring 2018, and its key messages appear on the UK government’s website.
The work is obviously well-intentioned and contains useful advice, such as to offer nutritious options in work canteens and encourage staff to take regular screen breaks. But it strays into nanny territory. By all means, give me tax-friendly bike schemes, lockers and showers, so that I can cycle or run to work if I choose. But “staff-led lunchtime walks”? Can you imagine anything more dispiriting than feeling press-ganged to spend your daily quota of me-time marching in step, Pied Piper-style, behind your line manager?
The suggestion of staff-led running clubs also induces terror: if encountering your colleagues every day is challenging enough, imagine them panting in Lycra. Some forms of collaborative workplace exercise are best orchestrated on an informal basis (or, at least, merit workplace consultation); the trick is to provide a convivial work atmosphere conducive to a range of lunchtime activities, including slacking as well as jogging.
Businesses are also urged to promote such events as National Fitness Day or Heathy Eating Week. But the suggestion that they should “engage the whole workforce” has some obvious pitfalls when it comes to spreading this philosophy among part-time workers, contractors and home workers.
Seriously? Suggesting to employees or contractors what they should eat at home is crass. Public health messaging is already persistent and pervasive; does it really need to be echoed by bosses?
You do not have to be paranoid to detect the potential for soft surveillance. Your choice whether to join your boss on a stroll may be noted. Your willingness, or otherwise, to buy into the corporate culture of health and wellbeing — and, by implied extension, economic success — may be noted. More facets of your life risk being subsumed into the company fold, leaving fewer to shape your identity as an individual.
Gimmicks such as free bananas also distract from deeper-rooted problems in workplace wellbeing. Take the gig economy, associated with low-paid, insecure work. Gig workers, like any others, deserve a living wage, as well as sick pay, proper sleep and time with their families. This allows them to organise their lives in a way known to be good for health, such as eating home-cooked meals.
The culture of long hours and presenteeism — when someone turns up for work but is unwell — is toxic. Employees are spending an average of more than a fortnight at work while sick, according to academics at Nottingham Trent University. Working while indisposed has itself become a malady: it is unproductive, spreads ill-health, and employers should actively discourage it.
Managers may feel responsible for employee health because they demand so much of their underlings. Free fruit and on-site classes perhaps ease managerial consciences in the face of cost-cutting, pay freezes, and crushing workloads.
My hunch is that people would rather have decent pay and sensible, well-defined hours, so that they, not managers, can make the health and wellbeing decisions that suit them best. It might be going swimming with the kids or cooking for friends — more meaningful, surely, than free bananas.
Anjana Ahuja is the FT’s science commentator