The hole where doughnuts used to be

Innocent snacks in the workplace could fall victim to the Lib-Cons’ outsourcing of moral busybodiness.

Vivienne Raper

Topics Politics

Is the humble office doughnut facing extinction? According to a headline in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper last month, ‘employers have a duty to “nudge” staff into shape’. Britain’s Lib-Con coalition government is expected to privatise many services, but outsourcing state moralising about healthy lifestyles to your boss is a step too far.

The Telegraph was reporting on the Public Health Responsibility Deal, which was launched on 15 March and is – according to the Guardian – at the heart of the coalition government’s public health policy. The Health At Work Network is among five working groups developing pledges for the deal, which companies and charities have been asked to sign up for.

As it goes, a variety of groups – from anti-drinking campaigners to the British Medical Association – has refused to endorse the Responsibility Deal on the grounds that the proposals have made too many concessions to business. But the real problem lies with the principles behind the government’s plans.

While plans to change food and alcohol labels have received considerable attention, changes in the workplace have had less coverage. The Health At Work Network shows the state will no longer be satisfied simply to lecture us, as New Labour did, or ‘nudge’ us into state-approved behaviour. Now they want to outsource busybodying to bosses. Or, in the Network’s own words, ‘help employers use the workplace to improve the health of their employees’ and ‘help people at work lead healthier lifestyles’.

Some of the proposals are focused on dealing with chronic conditions like back pain or mental health. But there’s plenty of petty lifestyle management, too. According to the Telegraph, this will include: making healthier foods available at work; reducing the fat, salt and energy content of meals; providing ‘responsibly sized’ portions; and displaying calorie and nutritional information. So it’s ‘bye, bye’ to irresponsible doughnuts, crisps and fizzy drinks, and ‘hello’ to fresh fruit and water.

There’s international precedent for this kind of thing. In 2008, the Japanese government introduced laws forcing employers to pressurise their employees into losing weight. If their chubby staff fail to slim down, these firms face financial penalties (see The perils of being big in Japan, by Basham and Luik).

The trouble with the state giving your employer a licence to ‘nudge’ is that your employers are not your parents. Mothers are expected to worry about kids’ diets, but the employer-employee relationship is an agreement to work in exchange for money. Provided you deliver work to a decent standard, your lifestyle should be your own business.

What’s more, employment contracts assume you’re a grown-up, able to choose where to sell your labour. Plans to nudge people into shape assume that Joe Public is a childlike food-and-booze junkie who needs to be tricked into going for a light stroll using high-tech behavioral science.

Asking employers to treat their staff like infants changes the dynamic between employers and employees in a dangerous way. It seems ridiculous that your boss would trust you to handle nuclear waste or put out fires when government public health policy assumes you can’t eat an apple at your desk without corporate help.

Yes, some companies already provide lifestyle perks like office gyms. But – crucially – they’re the employer’s choice, not the corporate arm of a state crusade against cakes. Businesses pay for health perks if they think they’re worth the money to attract talent, boost productivity or reduce sick days. People attracted to companies because of their pool enjoy swimming and work with others who agree. Everyone wins.

But the government doesn’t want offices with swimming pools to pledge to provide diving boards. They want all companies to volunteer to get staff fit fast… or else. If voluntary action doesn’t work ‘we will consider the case for introducing change through regulation’, the Department of Health told the Telegraph.

When the state decides to meddle, there’s a clear distinction between an order and encouragement. This is the liberal justification for ‘nudge’ – nothing is banned. Instead, the state-approved choice is made easier. Fruit is strategically placed in reach while chocolate is concealed because ‘nudgers’ believe Jane Public robotically grazes whatever is to hand.

Companies are different animals. When your boss is passionate about eating pears, failure to conform isn’t a good option if you want to survive the next redundancy round. An employer’s ‘nudge’ is more of a shove. The government must know this. The Department of Health website declares that ‘commercial organisations have influence with and can reach consumers in ways that the government cannot’.

Behavioural change changes office culture. The state shouldn’t be encouraging self-righteous sneering about doughnuts and puerile one-upmanship over fitness, which happens in some workplace gyms. Personnel Today writes of the pitfalls facing corporate exercisers: ‘imagine the embarrassment of hitting the gym to sweat out last night’s curry – only to find the chief executive there, blithely training for his next Iron Man challenge’.

But coworkers trying to impress the boss with sweaty underarms aren’t the only reason why state moralising should stay out the workplace. The history of companies who’ve pushed into our personal lives hasn’t been pretty.

Take Saltaire near Bradford in West Yorkshire, which was built by philanthropic industrialist Sir Titus Salt after 1850 to give his mill workforce a pleasanter place to live. Although this sounds delightful, Salt’s kindness had a price. He gained control over his employees’ personal lives.

Salt made sure Saltaire had no pub to keep his employees off the ‘demon drink’. He provided morally improving education, and banned swearing, gambling and hanging washing across the village streets. He may have threatened troublemakers at his mill with eviction from their homes. His village was a model, but the price was fear, compulsion and conformism.

Salt wouldn’t allow his employees to join trade unions, possibly because they wouldn’t have much truck with a notice at the village entrance reading ‘Abandon beer all ye who enter here’. Today, more than 150 years later, the Lib-Con coalition wants to return us to Titus Salt in the hope we’ll abandon our ready salted.

Vivienne Raper is a freelance journalist. She’s also a size 8 gym bunny who enjoys salads, but doesn’t think this makes her morally superior to anyone else. Visit her website here.

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Topics Politics


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