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Meddling for Success


Running towards a healthier lifestyleIs the start of a new year a good time for employers to enforce those resolutions that would, in theory, make a happier, healthier workforce? Is it any of their business if we come back to work looking like baby elephants and smelling like a pub carpet? Sarah Fletcher investigates.

It's that time of year again, where in the cold hard aftermath of a seasonal binge, you suspect that a diet of mince pies and chocolate coins might not have been such a good idea after all.

Most people vow to change their ways, but given our staggering record for joining gyms then failing to actually turn up, do we need someone else to pick us up, tell us off, and frog-march us to a personal trainer?

Given the considerable cost to business of sickly staff, should our employers force us to take charge of our health?

Or, as seasoned travelers down the road of broken resolutions, is it our choice if we want to smoke, drink and eat our way into a hospital bed?

You make it, you break it

January is the month for resolutions fuelled by guilty over-indulgence during the Christmas period; but, ironically, the month when these promises are most likely to be broken.

"Managers have enough on their minds, and they need to be as focused as is possible when introducing any substantial or possibly controversial changes."

Don Rhodes, consultant

As small business director Mike Morrison points out, we've almost been conditioned as a nation into thinking it's acceptable to break New Year resolutions, and this is the problem.

If we know before we even begin that we're going to fail – and that it's ok to return to the cigarettes and chocolate after a few days of agonised abstinence – then why bother wasting time and energy even pretending it will all be different this year?

Employers don't have time to initiate such schemes at this time of year, adds consultant Don Rhodes. "Managers have enough on their minds, and they need to be as focused as is possible when introducing any substantial or possibly controversial changes," he says. New Year, it seems, doesn't really work for anyone.

Small steps

Although our employers should take steps to improve the health of its workforce, says Morrison, throwing staff into a whole programme of self-improvement is bound to fail.

Completely rearranging someone's lifestyle in the space of a morning is unlikely to last, as it requires the enthusiasm and motivation that a 100-a-day biscuit habit shows you clearly lack.

Morrison advises focusing upon only one initiative at a time if you want to make a lasting change.

"When I used to work in the private health care sector, we had monthly themes and each month we focused on a different thing," he says. "This kept the messages fresh and encouraged people to try new things."

But should we bother?

Should employers really get involved at all? Is it any of their business if we come back to work resembling a small elephant and smelling like a pub carpet?

"I don't think there's ever a good time of year for an employer to start messing in people's personal lives, no matter whether it's for their own good or not," says training consultant Nik Kellingley.

Lifestyle choices are nothing to do with our employer, so it's entirely our decision if we wish to lie around in our pants on a Sunday afternoon, eating biscuits and smoking endless cigarettes.

"I'm all in favour of offering people options to do sport together, or quit smoking together (the NHS does this for free, though), but I'm not in favour of compulsory programmes. Experience suggests those who take part in 'organised' schemes often didn't need them in the first place and would have made the change anyway," he adds.

Is it even worth it?

These lifestyle changes may not even be the holy grail of health that we imagine, and could destroy morale in the process, says Kellingley.

"I don't think it's in the interest of any workforce for an employer to come round and say things like: 'You're thin, here are a few burgers to fatten you up'."

Nik Kellingley, training consultant

"Reports are conflicting as to whether or not they do the harm that's expected," he notes. "Fatness is controversial, as the BMI used by the UK doesn't seem to be an effective tool for diagnosing health risks at all.

"The current research (rather than 'our survey says'...) shows that overweight people tend to live longer and be more healthy than thin people, and it's only the truly obese that are at risk of dying younger.

"So I don't think it's in the interest of any workforce for an employer to come round and say things like: 'You're thin, here are a few burgers to fatten you up - we don't want your unhealthy self expiring early, do we?' followed by: 'You're nicely chunky, the ideal employee, don't eat too many burgers or exercise too much - after all we wouldn't want you to peg out early!' and then: 'But you are a lard arse of the third degree, so we've hired a personal trainer to chase you round the block at break times and steal your lunches and replace them with salad!'

"Not only are all these things subjective judgements, but none of them are likely to boost employee morale," he adds.

He argues that these health schemes driven by employers don't even work, so there's no point in inflicting something that's only going to make everyone miserable.

"Smoking, of course, is bad for you. However, despite all the vociferous attacks on smokers over the last year or so, nothing has really changed. Less than 2 per cent of smokers (from the government's figures) have made any commitment to quit in the last year and the current research shows that the smokers who still smoke aren't interested in giving up.

"That doesn't mean they don't know it's bad for them," says Kellingley. "It means they just don't care. So a no-smoking drive from employers is likely to have no effect on people's decisions to smoke and is likely to waste time and money instead."

A happier workforce?

Bosses should take care not to force health policies upon staff. If you force unwilling employees into lycra and make them run around the park during their lunch hour, you're asking for trouble.

Instead, present such initiatives as a choice – and don't punish anyone who decides they'd rather bury their face in a burger than live on lettuce leaves.

"I'd save the money, though, and spend it on learning and development activities or pay rises," remarks Kellingley. "These always seem to have a much healthier effect on morale and don't need to involve making negative comments about your employees in the first place."

Perhaps, then, there are better ways to improve morale and performance than forcing staff onto treadmills and frowning disapprovingly at anyone who smokes or drinks.

Giving staff access to healthy living schemes is a good idea, but don't expect them to actually use it. Also, this should be an ongoing process, not just something for the post-Christmas purge.

"By considering such things throughout the year, we are much less likely to miss an opportunity; but more importantly, we create a culture of innovation and improvement, which needs to be continuous," says Rhodes.


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