Discussions around getting the UK more healthy have been ongoing for a number of years. But it seems to have intensified in recent years, with debate taking centre stage in the workplace.

And that accelerated this year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Studies showed that physically healthier people were far less likely to require hospital treatment, intensive care treatment and ultimately lose their lives. It led to the government launching its Obesity Strategy in July in an effort to tackle the country’s growing problem with over-eating, eating the wrong foods and not exercising.

However, the pandemic also put a significant spotlight on mental health given the impact of lockdown restrictions and isolation.

While there appears to be appetite for greater focus on our physical and mental health, will that message ever really prevail over profits?

That was a question posed by Jon Dawson, partner at haysmacintyre, and became the focus of a roundtable discussion between entrepreneurs operating in the health and wellbeing industries, hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre.

Impact over profit

Sara Roberts is the founder of Healthy Nibbles, which creates healthy snack boxes, works with employers to provide healthier snacking for employees and develops workplace strategies. One of its strands is the creation and implementation of healthy vending machines.

Sara said convincing organisations to put health and impact before immediate profit when it comes to things like healthy vending machines can be a challenge, despite poor diet costing UK businesses billions each year.

“Most conversations are underpinned by the profit conversation,” she explained. “If you look at the larger organisations in the vending market, they offer significant cashback on purchases and put machines in free of charge. If you’re doing any form of innovation, you’ve got a heavy cost and cannot adopt the same business model.

“Equally product costs and margins are very different, due to the use of whole ingredients. There’s obviously going to be and increased cost and there’s not the same margin.

Daniel Herman, founder of Bio-Synergy, is also developing a vending machine offering fresh protein products. He was asked if he believes that is only now becoming a viable option because it is starting to be very profitable.

“The key is taking out all the unnecessary ingredients. It allows us to create a better tasting product, more exciting customer experience and also completely reduce environmental impact because what we’re shipping is powder rather than bottles of water effectively. It means that the customer is getting a better product and the retailer is getting a better margin and the environment is getting that factor too.”

Charlie Winton, founder of OK Positive, argued that the questions should no longer be ‘health vs balance sheet’. He said: “We’re aware of the benefits but we’re not ingraining it into our daily lives. Traditionally the workplace has KPIs for all sorts of sales targets, but nothing for wellbeing. And yet all research shows that the financial cost of focusing on employee health and wellbeing is far outweighed by the benefits.”

Who is responsible?

A question often raised in these types of debates centres around whose responsibility it is to make changes, and enforce measures that improve health and wellbeing. Should it be left to the individual to do what they want? Should government intervene with legislation? Should it be down to brands and businesses?

The consensus is that it’s all three.

Cara de Lange, founder of Softer Success, said: “We’re all responsible for it. If somebody doesn’t want to help themselves, they’re not going to do it. If a company is not behind it, it’s not going to work.”

Interestingly, in Cara’s experience, it is younger businesses with younger founders and CEOs that are really driving change in the workplace. It led to questions over whether this is becoming a generational debate.

She added: “There’s traditional leadership that is still resistant. It almost seems like a box ticking exercise to some of them.”

Cara suggested that younger business leaders better understand the human aspect, whereas more traditional workplaces would be better swayed by proven results and data, showing that there is a benefit to the bottom line.

Charlie noted that a potential client recently said the OK Positive app was too expensive. A week later, a member of staff went off work with stress. And their sick pay would’ve covered the cost of the app for every single employee for a whole year.

George Bettany, founder of Sanctus, added: “I used to get annoyed and frustrated that I couldn’t change people’s perception and behaviour faster.“My mum understood the message I’m sharing, but for her to really take it on board is a huge step because of the experiences and traumas she’s had in her life.”

He added: “I’ve become more empathetic towards leaders. The conversations I’m having show me that they do want to confront mental health issues, but it’s a very, very difficult journey for them. So rather than becoming annoyed, I’ve had to adapt and think about how I tell my stories, and understanding that it may be a slower journey for some.”

It was a point supported by Joe Welstead, founder of Motion Nutrition. He said health and wellbeing industries cannot hope to introduce a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

“You have got to understand the circumstances and the context of different people,” he started. “And if you take it from their frame of mind, you can start to see things and perhaps read your own language in a way that.”

Wellbeing during Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly put health and wellbeing at the forefront of people’s minds, as they see real evidence that being healthier reduces the risk of serious complications when contracted the virus, and as they try to cope with the mental challenges posed by not seeing loved ones, by having their normal lives ripped from underneath them.

But what impact has the pandemic had on workers and how is the health and wellbeing industry responding?

Simon Scott-Nelson, founder of Wellity, is concerned about prolonged working from home and the impact it will have on both mental health and employer-employee engagement, particularly if the engagement doesn’t feel authentic.

He said: “No contact can be quite dangerous. But pushing everyone to be jolly at 7:30 in the evening, put on a Christmas hat and wear a fancy dress is forced fun. Real engagement comes from understanding your employees and talking to them.”

Simon is a great believer in the impact employers can have in improving their workforce’s health and wellbeing. He suggested that adjusting working hours is an excellent way to give people free, personal time while it’s still light during the winter months.

Joe Gaunt, founder of hero and former managing director of WeWork, argued that individuals and employers need to take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing, from physical and mental, to social and financial.

“They’re completely interconnected and they’re inseparable. You could be focusing on your physical health, but of course it really, really supports your mental health,” he started.

“Lockdown has shown that you can have a really great mental health, but when people are locked down they’re not getting out for a walk, to the gym, they’re not accessing good nutrition, they can’t see friends or family, and it has a big impact.”

Collaboration is key

The most prominent theme running through the discussion was the group’s hunger for collaboration and belief that it is not only advantageous but necessary to further the health and wellbeing agenda.

James Jameson, founder of Rise, said: “None of us are going to solve this on our own. Absolutely none of us. And, in fact, trying to do everything on your own is what drives you under as well.”

François Paillier, founder of CircaGene, believes these industries need to take inspiration from the science and medicine industries that have developed vaccines at an unprecedented speed to tackle Covid-19.

He said: “When we talk about new technologies to develop vaccine or mental health digital therapeutics, what we see is a convergence of very complex technology - AI, DNA sequencing. All of these things come together and bring a kind of critical mass, which is reached. That collaboration allows us to go further to do better now and see further in the future.”

Each entrepreneur involved in the discussion spoke about their desire to enact real change, and to work together to find solutions that benefit both workers and employers.