In the UK and across the western world, we are facing an unprecedented surge in obesity and chronic disease rates. According to a study published by Fit for Work in July 2014, 50% of UK employees will have a chronic health condition by 2030. Much of this can be blamed on the widespread adoption of unhealthy lifestyles in our personal lives, and at work.
This information is serious, and if we don’t take action we will see huge repercussions across our society – from a health and welfare system straining under the weight of an overweight nation, to a workforce that is simply not healthy enough to perform at its best.
So it would seem that the natural answer to the question presented in the title of this article – should the government regulate employee wellness programmes? – is a resounding yes. Let’s do whatever it takes to make our workforce as healthy as possible – and regulation is typically a fast and effective way to get business to do something it may not naturally want to.
However, as with all such debates at this level of complexity, things are not always as obvious as they first appear – and there might well be a strong argument for government to stay well away from employee wellness.
Before we get into the debate proper, let’s take a quick look at where we are today. In the UK, the government obviously has lots of regulations around health and safety in the workplace. So much so in fact, that the cry of ‘health and safety’ has become synonymous with the idea of a nanny state. Whatever you think of it, anyone who’s ever worked in an office has most likely been taught the correct way to lift heavy boxes – at the very least!
But ‘employee wellness’ is a completely different beast to health and safety. The concept refers to employee wellbeing at quite a holistic level – and can include everything from physical fitness through to stress management, work-life balance (eg. flexible working hours or job shares) and smoking cessation. Not only is there a trend amongst progressive companies to embrace this concept simply because caring for employees is the ‘right thing to do’, there is also a lot of strong evidence to suggest that helping employees live healthier lives is a smart move for business’ bottom line.
For example, an economist at Stanford University examined 700 firms around the world to understand how an employer’s treatment of its employees affects its success. The results were persuasive: “We find more productive, faster growing and better managed firms offer their employees a more attractive work-life balance package”. However, he also adds this insight: “Managing large companies is complex and hard. . . . Getting work-life balance practices right is particularly hard, as this is a fast moving area, facilitated by modern IT, and a lot of firms are operating with outdated practices.”
In the UK, the government has so far only dipped its toe around legislating for employee wellness. The Public Health Responsibility Deal was introduced in 2013 as a voluntary pledge for companies to take to commit to tackling key health problems among their workforce. Let’s take a quick look at a few of the arguments around whether this is smart move for government.
The case for government regulation.
Firstly, the health of a society’s workforce is obviously important to making sure it functions as well as possible. And, given that a ‘functioning society’ is essentially the role of government – however hands-off you’d like it to be – government involvement in the health of employees seems like a no-brainer.
Secondly, regulation is an effective way to get business to do those things it would typically rather avoid footing the bill for. As described above, although progressive companies are already embracing employee health and wellbeing strategies (and seeing the benefits) – to achieve the kind of health improvements we need at the rate we need them, we need to encourage the majority of businesses to start taking action as soon as possible.
The case against government regulation.
There are two main arguments against regulation in this area. The first is ideological: if businesses are forced to take better care of employees, instead of being incentivised in another way, the potential for wider adoption of progressive policies – such as equal pay or sustainability – becomes less likely. Instead of rushing through laws for businesses to follow, is this a chance for government to help them improve holistically?
And secondly, many will strongly argue that this kind of regulation is a restriction of human rights. What if, as an employee, I don’t want to take a medical, or have my health details stored, or be discriminated against for not riding a bicycle to work?
For me, the question needs changing: it’s less about whether the government should or shouldn’t get involved in regulating employee wellness, but rather how that regulation would work. A small collection of simple, clear wellness program regulations could be all it takes to give more employees the chance to live healthier, happier lives, while also protecting them from discrimination and privacy abuse.