Is corporate wellness an indicator of responsible business?

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By Dr Geraint Harvey, Senior Lecturer in HRM and Industrial Relations, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business Associate
Department of Management, University of Birmingham


scholars have called for businesses to not focus on new health initiatives, but on more established aspects of human resource management that give workers the tools to live healthier lives.

If responsible business means that a business behaves responsibly towards staff then, on the face of it, corporate wellness is surely a shining example? Perhaps not.

Corporate wellness has often been linked with workplace health promotion, which, through corporate policy, encourages staff to lead healthier lives, thereby reducing chronic disease with the aim of benefiting society. However, corporate wellness is different. It is primarily focused on reducing worker illness for the benefit of business e.g. by reducing employee absence or making employees healthier and thereby more able to contribute more at work.

Worker illness can be extremely costly to businesses in the UK. Office for National Statistics (ONS) data reveals that 137million working days were lost to sickness in 2016 (4.3 days per worker) with £18 billion in lost productivity. Moreover, the UK has been referred to as ‘the fat man of Europe’, topping the European obesity league with around one quarter of the population estimated to be obese compared to around 16% of French people. So, the responsible thing to do is to invest in wellness initiatives right? After all, they not only benefit the business, but also the workforce…

Nothing in life or business is ever quite so straightforward. First, the findings of research into the effect of corporate wellness are mixed, indicating that investment in corporate wellness – often involving a significant financial commitment (the industry for corporate wellness providers is believed to be worth in the region of $43billion globally) – does not guarantee better business performance.

Second, research has shown that corporate wellness initiatives promoting exercise and healthy lifestyle options can lead to discrimination against those who are less fit and healthy, or those who are legitimately unable to engage in certain physical activities, for example, workers who are disabled. Alternatively, it can impose bias on the decisions that are made about the performance of staff so that performance appraisal, for example, is influenced unduly by whether the worker’s appearance or behaviour meets wellness measures.

Finally, introducing the targets associated with the ‘health’ performance of staff has the potential to increase stress and anxiety among staff with the very real prospect of increasing the likelihood of conditions such as anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder.

In response, scholars have called for businesses to not focus on new health initiatives, but on more established aspects of human resource management (HRM) that give workers the tools to live healthier lives. The relationship between aspects of HRM and worker health is intuitive and there are numerous research studies that demonstrate the link. For example, the economic status of a worker, their employment security and the level to which they are able to play a part in the business, all contribute to worker health. Therefore, rather than make the significant financial investment in corporate wellness, the responsible (and indeed economically rational) strategy for businesses to take towards worker health is to pay a decent wage, guarantee job security and give workers an effective voice.


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