Government’s ‘free fruit’ scheme isn’t enough to solve employee wellbeing, say experts

New workplace wellbeing strategy dubbed ‘bits and bobs’, as industry commentators argue it won’t create healthier culture

Businesses should offer staff perks like free fruit, bicycle loans and counselling to help them stay healthy, according to a new government strategy – but experts argue that more substantial change is needed.

The new initiative, to be launched today by the health secretary, urges employers to “help improve the health of their staff and the nation”.

Officials hope the strategy – which cites a Cornwall dairy firm that offers its staff free fruit, counselling and a cycle-to-work scheme as an example – will help relieve growing pressure on the NHS. 

In an interview with The Telegraph, Matt Hancock said employers should do more to help ill workers transition back into the workplace. He said he is “attracted to the model in the Netherlands where employers have more of a role in working with employees who are off sick”. 

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, welcomed the initiative, saying the charity had “long been calling on employers to take responsibility for creating mentally healthy workplaces”. 

“Offering free fruit, cycle-to-work schemes and counselling are just some examples of things that can make a difference, but we also want employers to create environments where staff can talk openly about poor mental health at work, and know that if they do, they’ll be given support and understanding, rather than facing stigma and discrimination,” she said. 

Mamo added it was not just about supporting people in work, but employers also need welfare and health systems that help people “when their mental health deteriorates”. She said investing in prevention and early intervention was also important. 

Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage, said it was “positive to see the government buying into benefits strategies that support staff wellbeing”. 

“Businesses should take this as a huge opportunity to make their workforce feel more

engaged and motivated,” Thomson said. “Companies should take this chance to boost their health initiatives, offering benefits that can keep their staff happy and well.”

However, others criticised the new initiative saying most businesses already incorporate these programmes into their organisations. 

Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer, told People Management the initiative will make a lot of employers “quite angry” because they are already doing this. 

“It couldn’t be further from the truth that employers aren’t engaged with their staff’s health and wellbeing,” Bailey said. “Employers should be, and often are, engaged with their staff’s health because productivity improves when people are engaged in their wellbeing.”

Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president and professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, said the most important thing employers can do to encourage staff health and wellbeing is to look at the culture their business creates. 

“It’s great to encourage staff to do things that will make them healthier, but if you create a long working hours culture and send emails that interfere with private hours, it will not foster a psychologically healthy working environment,” Cooper explained. “Giving them all these little bits and bobs is not creating that healthier culture.”

He said employers also need to look at their line managers and evaluate their emotional quotient (EQ) or emotional intelligence. Cooper added that correctly training and evaluating line managers is what employers “need to create a wellbeing culture”. 

Debi O’Donovan, director of the Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA), also emphasised employers look at their culture for wellbeing and illness prevention to “be truly effective”.

“While benefits such as free fruit and cycle-to-work schemes have their place, strategies to give staff a sense of control over their work and personal lives, as well as sense of purpose will have a greater impact in preventing or mitigating many common ailments,” O’Donovan said. “This is harder to achieve but can be looked at by tackling social, financial, mental and physical wellbeing with full support of an organisation’s leadership.”