Business must take lead on public health

Jane Asscher - Health

Improving staff attitudes towards their mental and physical condition won’t just help the workforce – it can also future-proof your company’s health and that of the wider economy, argues 23red boss Jane Asscher…

A person too busy to take care of their health, according to an old Spanish proverb, is like a mechanic too busy to take care of their tools. Jane Asscher, managing partner and chairman at creative agency 23red, agrees with the adage, but also believes the proverbial mechanic should be supported from above. Employers, in other words, should be doing far more to encourage their staff to maintain the apparatus of trade – their wellbeing.

“Companies are generally just not doing enough,” says Asscher, who is currently working with Public Health England on a campaign to reinvent adult health. “Many organisations have health and wellbeing programmes but, for too many, these are just a tick-box exercise. Even in businesses with well-established programmes, the reality is only a small proportion – perhaps 10 or 15 per cent – of the workforce actively participate. And companies are rarely actively engaged with finding out how to get their staff to participate more and benefit from them.”

Healthy body, healthy business

For Asscher, there are two major underlying reasons for this widespread complacency, the first being leaders’ failure to appreciate the extent to which their employees’ health can benefit their business. “When you look at corporate annual reports, findings related to wellbeing invariably appear in the Corporate Social Responsibility chapter, rather than being viewed as a core part of the business strategy,” she says, adding that a more diligent approach could not only address sickness and absenteeism (131 million sick days were taken in the UK in 2013, the latest year for which the ONS has figures) but also increase productivity and enhance workplace culture and competence.

The other major problem, says Asscher, is culturally ingrained: we’re collectively too quick to accept – even embrace – ill health and loss of both mental and physical ability as an inevitability. “How often do you hear of aches and pains being explained away with, ‘oh, I’m just getting old’? But the reality is that 70 per cent of adult diseases are directly linked to lifestyle. It’s within our own gift to change how we live and [consequently] work into later life.”

Asscher says you don’t need to turn your personnel into quinoa-fuelled, six-packed Olympians to foster a healthy collective mentality. Simple, small measures can reap vast benefits. “Studies show that a person could burn 30,000 more calories a year – equivalent to losing 8lbs – from standing for just two to three hours a day,” says Asscher, “which is why last month Virgin Media announced a pilot in its Sheffield call centre to have voluntary staff test standing at their adjustable desks for a minimum of two hours each day for the next six months.”

Health initiatives

Another initiative to impress Asscher is Shift into Sports, which provides shift workers with access to cheap pay-as-you-play leisure and fitness opportunities by taking advantage of facilities during off-peak times. Sky UK has made the scheme available to all of its 16,500 employees, and those outside the conventional nine-to-five working day – notably broadcast production staff, customer service workers and installation engineers – can now register on a customised website using an employer passcode to find offers in their local area.

Meanwhile, the food company Danone gives its staff vouchers for healthy food stores, L’Oréal UK’s staff canteen offers only healthy fruit, berries, vegetables, salads and yoghurts, while media company MEC uses its Facebook and Twitter channels to communicate wellbeing offerings such as energy workshops, massages, a visiting GP, 50 per cent discount on gym classes, sleep clinics and programmes to quit smoking.

But there’s still plenty that smaller companies with more modest resources can do, too. And, with around 62 per cent of adults thought to be either obese or overweight in England, and three in four projected to become overweight by 2035 according to a report by Cancer Research UK and the UK Health Forum, encouraging healthy eating is a good starting point. “Having healthy options in a staff canteen is great,” says Asscher, “but some employers have done some more interesting things, such as giving the staff vouchers for shops in which they can buy healthy food, getting nutritionists to talk to staff about healthy eating and so on.”

With an ageing demographic and a looming pensions deficit, and with the NHS also under increasing strain, Asscher says there are sound societal, as well as commercial, reasons to bring a healthy mentality into your organisation. But perhaps the most enticing reason is it’s just so easy to do. “No matter what sector you’re in,” she concludes, “no matter how old or young your staff are, there are plenty of ways you can engage people in critical messages: getting them to move more, eat better, check themselves, combat stress and generally avoid sleepwalking into ill health.

“There are 15 million people currently aged between 40 and 60 in the UK who can expect to live, on average, into their eighties. Someone 50 today could be looking at another 25 years of working life ahead. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a grown-up conversation about the way we live our adult lives. Start having that conversation with your employees now.”


1963 Born in London

1985 Graduates from Oxford University with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics

1985 Joins Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency

2000 Co-founds 23red, experts in devising and delivering social marketing campaigns

2009 Co-authors Change4Life Marketing Strategy and works with the Department of Health to create a social movement that sets out to tackle the rising tide of childhood obesity

2015 Launches Consult23, a specialist division within 23red advising government and private sector clients on action-oriented strategies that underpin individual, social or organisational change

To find out more about Jane Asscher’s creative communications agency visit

Twitter: @23red

Interested in finding out more on mental health?

The IoD is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, with a particular focus on opening up the conversation for small-and medium-sized businesses. We have created a hub packed full of helpful advice, best practice and useful resources, as well as shared experiences from business leaders.

Visit our mental health in the workplace hub here and get involved in the conversation on Twitter #IoDMH

For more on health and social care see:

National Heart Month

How to keep your back healthy

Achieving your health and wellbeing goals

Hellenic Healthy Holidays, Greece

About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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