We know that a sedentary lifestyle is a health risk factor, with traditional desk-based office work a significant contributor to the problem. Employers therefore, have a responsibility to mitigate the health impacts for the millions of workers tethered to their desk chairs for eight hours a day. But leading with ‘weight loss’ as a convenient shorthand for ‘health’ is not the right approach: weight loss is not the same as fitness, which is not the same as health; being careful about the language we use can make the difference between empowering employees and policing their choices.
Employers need to tread carefully to avoid overstepping the boundaries between the work and personal lives of employees. Weight loss, in particular, is an emotionally fraught, highly personal and complex issue, and employers’ efforts in this area can, at worst, be counterproductive, leading to unsustainable diet practices, yo-yo dieting, anxiety, and shame cycles, which can be disastrous to mental health.
What employers can more helpfully be doing is taking a holistic approach to wellbeing. Enabling and empowering staff to develop and maintain healthier habits can have carryover benefits to other areas of the workplace, for example productivity. Workplace wellness programmes should, therefore, focus on behaviourial change, emphasising the process rather than dictating the end goal. Workplace culture can play a powerful role in supporting staff to make healthier choices. It is crucial that senior leaders model healthy behaviours, and support a culture which actively encourages people to develop healthier habits, for example using their lunch break to leave their desks and go for a walk. Employers can also focus on accommodating, or even incentivising, healthy lifestyle choices, such as walking or cycling to work.
Another approach employers can take is to ensure that healthier choices are the easy choice, such as by providing healthier food as the primary option in any on-site catering or vending machines. By making healthy options the default, wellness programmes can harness inertia in the same way that auto-enrolment worked to increase workplace pension membership to over 84%.
At The Poppy Factory, we have invested in a number of convertible sit/stand desks for staff and we also have changing and shower facilities on site to accommodate staff who cycle to work. We focus on wellbeing topics related to both physical and mental health, and the ways they are interlinked, through a recurring feature in our bi-weekly newsletter, and we have created accessible resources for personalised advice and guidance on health and fitness through our employee assistance programme (EAP). By building our approach around educating, enabling and empowering staff to make healthier choices, we support employees to define what health looks like for their own body, lifestyle and abilities or disabilities.
Charlotte Dymock is HR business partner at The Poppy Factory