Tears, Tech and Terrariums: The Future of Workplace Wellness

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Driven by science but eschewing constant connectivity, corporate wellbeing innovators are using fun, honesty and informed decision-making to drive engagement, with emotional wellbeing the next big frontier.

Spurred by a widespread interest in health and fitness across developed countries as well as a heightened understanding of the economic cost of ill-health, the global workplace wellness industry is now worth an annual $43.3bn, with over half of North American workers and 25 percent of European employees covered by a wellbeing initiative.  

But, for those firms yet to wake up to the benefits of helping employees improve their health, innovators in the space are using science linking wellness to productivity to build stronger business cases.

Joanne Milston, who worked as an M&A advisor for KPMG before founding Urban Guru, a startup bringing mindfulness and yoga into the workplace, initially found it easier to gain traction with smaller businesses, despite her corporate background.

“I struggled to convince larger firms that there was time for wellness,” she explains. “HR training is often focused on adopting proven processes, whereas mindfulness is quite new, so it takes a lot of convincing. Pointing to the statistics is what really worked – 45 percent of sick days in the British economy are caused by stress.”

Neuroscientist and leadership coach Dr Tara Swart draws on the growing body of research linking the brain and body to compel board-level decision makers to embrace her coaching. “What surprises me is that very intelligent, successful, educated people don’t think about the relationship between your brain and what you eat, even though the brain represents 2 percent of the body weight, but consumes about 20 percent of the calories.”

As well as drawing on her high profile as an author and academic, Swart argues that tech is an invaluable tool for persuasion. “Using heart-rate variability monitors is often very effective for people in quantitative roles – it’s only seeing the data that convinces them that healthy change is necessary,” she tells Welltodo.

Other startup businesses have won over corporate customers by repackaging wellness concepts into corporate-friendly packages. For Max Henderson, co-founder of Hotpod Yoga, this means classes in pop-up inflatable studios designed to be workplace-friendly.

“Yoga suffers from a ‘culty’, intimidating and inaccessible reputation,” he argues. “That puts a lot of businesses off and is something we work really hard to combat as it simply doesn’t need to be the case. Our classes really, genuinely are open to and loved by a massive range of people, many of whom would never see themselves as yoga people.”

Yet buy-in from those at the top of organisations is only one of the challenges that wellness pioneers are overcoming. A 2016 report by The Global Wellness Institute estimated only 13 percent of employees with access to workplace wellness truly engage with it. Lilly Richardson, a freelance yoga teacher who has taught yoga classes in FTSE 100 banks, has witnessed this first-hand. From disinterested high-flyers checking their smartphones during classes to attendance trailing off once employers introduce a fee for sessions. Ultimately, she says of the desire to be healthier: “You have to find it yourself – it can’t be forced on you by your company.”

Perkbox workplace wellness

Image: Perkbox

Allowing individuals to choose the sort of wellness that suits them has been key to the success of Perkbox, an employee engagement platform that secured an investment in excess of £4m by the time its Seedrs crowdfunding campaign came to a close in November 2016. As well as discounted gym memberships and physiotherapy sessions, the service offers employees free fitness classes to stream online.

Another solution to the dilemma between forcing wellness on workers or leaving them to their own devices comes from iamYiam. The startup combines an employee’s DNA test and a behavioural questionnaire with 80,000 data points from peer-reviewed scientific research, to make personalised health recommendations. “Employers subsidise the first engagement, but those using it choose and pay for classes and treatments,” explains founder Lorena Puica. “Companies don’t have access to individual data points, but they can get anonymised overviews of workforce goals.”

Having launched iamYiam in 2016, in a bid to help individuals who want to be healthy but struggle with knowing where to start, the entrepreneur has ambitious plans to improve the health and wellbeing of 1bn people by 2025.

For Swart, informing the business leaders she coaches to enable them to make better decisions is also important, but sustainable behaviour change requires accountability as well. “That’s part of why coaching is so effective. Of course, not everyone can be coached, but tech can also play a role – triggers keep you committed to a goal, while sharing and competition encourage you to go beyond it,” she argues.

Future iterations of iamYiam’s user platform will also seek to gamify the process, reflecting important moves towards driving engagement using wellness tech.

Leading the movement of established consumer wellness brands in the workplace, Fitbit’s corporate offering tracks employees activity and injects a dose of healthy competition into teams. Since 2015, US retailer Target has used the technology to allocate funds for charitable giving to the most active employees. In the same year, fitness equipment provider Technogym worked with KPMG  to institute a team challenge to coincide with the Rugby World Cup, incentivising workers in the firm’s Canary Wharf office to burn 128,785 calories.

Yet not all attempts to infuse employee wellbeing with joy are tech-driven. Matt Morley’s “evolution friendly” fitness concept Biofit incorporates crawling patterns, lifting and carrying with balance beams, rope climbs and ball games. The studios he designs for corporates use biophilic design principles to enhance mental as well as physical wellbeing.

Live plants and greenery; natural light, materials, colours and shapes; cross-ventilation; improved air quality and even aromatherapy,” he explains. “Studies have shown that incorporating some or all of these elements into the workplace has a positive impact on well-being, productivity and creativity, while reducing anxiety and lowering staff sickness rates.”

As a senior associate at workplace design company M Moser, Keith Roper thinks that creating working spaces that help employees experience joy throughout the day is another key step in the evolution of workplace wellness towards enhancing the very highest levels of wellbeing. “Bright, cheerful environments result in focused, creative thoughts,” he explains, pointing to Henry Stewart’s “The Happy Manifesto”, as inspiration.

The business is in good company when it comes to making connections between space and wellbeing – in January, wellness real estate firm Delos announced a partnership with design firm HKS to measure the impact changes to work environments have on wellbeing.

For Roper, it’s subtle but powerful things that really make a difference – artwork and sculpture that provoke thought, he reveals. “For example, I saw an engineering company which had a jet fighter ejection seat that really captured employees’ imagination. Integrating that sort of thing with lighting is important too; 500 lux everywhere really isn’t necessary,” he says.

Warner Music wellness week

Image: Warner Music wellness week

Enjoyment and creativity play a big part in Warner Music UK’s wellness strategy, but choice plays the largest role. In January, the record label’s staff chose from a menu of activities dedicated to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing during their second annual Wellness Week. When we drop in on the final day of the event, the team enthuse about terrarium-making workshops, healthy cookery lessons and a talk on body image and selfie culture by renowned psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. Competitive spin classes and disco yoga are also on the roster.

“The feedback we get is very positive – it’s very popular and there’s very high levels of engagement across all activities,” explains Masha Osherova, Executive VP at Warner Music. “Not only that, ultimately it has the knock on effect to increase the uptake of our regular, ongoing programme.”

The company’s year-round schedule is equally flexible, including piano lessons and Krav Maga self-defense coaching, as well as yoga and boot camps. But the wellness week programme also includes an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy run by Take Time to Talk, an NHS organisation providing free ongoing counselling should employees wish to pursue it.

Warner Music joins the growing number of corporates and startups taking tentative steps toward the final frontier in workplace wellness: talking openly about feelings in a workplace environment. It’s a barrier that entrepreneur Nancy Fechnay is also enthusiastic about overcoming.

The Inspire Movement – a global community which she founded in May 2016, emphasises “being human and encouraging sharing stories.” Upon introducing her most recent gathering of tech company founders and investors at Google’s London office in January, Fechnay quotes US academic Brene Brown: “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation.” By the end of the evening, following three inspiring stories of overcoming adversity, audience members have been moved to share their own stories, and many are in tears.

Later, she tells Welltodo: “As individuals we benefit from sharing vulnerable moments because it breaks barriers and brings us closer to those we chose to share our personal stories with. From a pure ‘work perspective,’ businesses that go through this experience will see an increase in creativity, effective teamwork, collaboration and employee retention.”

While innovative companies in creative and tech industries are leading the way for the introduction of emotions in the workplace, resistance from traditional industries remains. “Using language like high cortisol is more acceptable than talking about emotions,” explains Swart.  

Yet even in the most conservative companies, feelings are moving up the agenda. Nuffield Health –  the UK’s biggest health and wellbeing provider with 60 percent of the FTSE 100 amongst its corporate customers – launched a mindfulness training programme 18 months ago and acquired a cognitive behavioural therapy company in 2016. “With 1 in 4 people experiencing some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year,” argues business development director Chris Koffman, “a strong emotional wellbeing strategy needs to be an integral part of an employee wellbeing strategy.”

With J.Crew’s new athleisure line establishing workout leggings as an office classic, the latest Huckletree West including a creche, and dog-friendly offices on the rise, innovations that give feelings a place in the workplace are a natural evolution – and are a development to watch.

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