The chocolate approach to well-being

Were the chocolate manufacturers the original best companies to work for? I’m not talking about the fact I could repeatedly eat my bodyweight in their product – but their pioneering support for staff health and welfare.

The first name that comes to mind for me when I think of welfare pioneers is George Cadbury. Still one of Birmingham’s main employers, Cadbury saw real benefit in providing good working conditions, medical services for staff and pension schemes, which wasn’t standard practice at the time.

It appears he wasn’t alone as at a similar time in the late 1800s, on the other side of the pond, Milton S. Hershey established his factory in Pennsylvania. Close to two major ports, surrounded by dairy farms and with a local labour supply, Hershey also took a philanthropic approach to business. He set up an infrastructure to provide for staff welfare, with staff housing, schools, churches, parks and leisure facilities.

And of course there’s a third chocolate-related philanthropist in Joseph Rowntree. On a mission to identify and tackle the root causes of poverty, he provided social housing to local workers (both Rowntree and otherwise) as well as facilities like a gym to support staff welfare.

The ‘company towns’ of Bourneville and Hershey are still synonymous with their main employers and the entrepreneurial dream of creating a great place to work where people felt valued and cared for, which meant workers were more healthy and productive. And the foundations created by all three philanthropists are still providing societal benefits today.

These pioneers didn’t just provide a series of well-being initiatives – they tried to create a culture of good health. Today it’s generally accepted that one of the reasons a company is a great place to work is if there’s a genuine interest in its people’s well-being. But, in reality, when we talk about well-being strategies and well-being initiatives, what do we really mean?

Is it about making informed investments that tackle main root causes of absence in our organisation, such as taking preventative action if we have a high level of musculoskeletal problems? Are we looking at how to support good physical and mental health as well as lifestyle choices? Do we also go deeper than that, looking to build well-being into how we operate – and a factor in how we make business decisions?

To what extent is this latter systems approach a reality? Or are we still at the stage of thinking we need to do something but not yet convinced of the true impact a culture of wellness can have on engagement, productivity and sustainable business? For example, acting on the fact that employees’ well-being is heavily impacted by the way they are managed? The way jobs are designed, workloads,  the degree of trust throughout the organisation, and opportunities for development.

It requires a fundamental mind-set shift about the way business is done, with well-being a consideration in business decisions. Although we’ve seen great examples of this in practice in businesses focused on their long-term sustainability, for many this is still aspiration and for others it may not even be in the plan. At an economic level, increasing productivity is a key policy message, but this has to happen in a sustainable way. As the pioneers in the chocolate industry recognised, supporting a healthy working population is core to that.

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  • i was delighted to read this; one of the stories I have in the past used in sessions which include the "start" of "personnel" includes the work of Mary Brown, one of the first known Welfare Officers, later called personnel officers.  She in particular worked with the girls in the chocolate factory, addressing "women's issues" - which in those days meant being beaten, pregnant, having lice, no food, no home and potentially getting your hair caught in the machinery - not PMT!

    She is attributed with doing the first brown bag lunch breaks, when she realised they often couldn't read or write.  And of course her boss would have praised her for adding value, if that term had been invented.

    I think HR has a great opportunity to be innovative coming at them; the budget yesterday triggered a vast number of tweets, some more informed than others, but largely by lower income earners who were demotivated by their new potential financial situation;  it will trigger a real engagement problem;  it will also trigger young students to be working more instead of studying at university with the loss of maintenance grants - so HR may have more half awake till and shelf staff to deal with.  

    The social issues around us now - depending on your location, spill into the work place, and while organisations arrange neck massages, away days, health checks and other recommended engagement and wellness initiatives, there is something needed at a deeper level.  How will HR respond to sustaining the morale, engagement and productivity levels in a new culture of worry?  Managers and HR will need to work together to achieve a real culture of supported, enthusiastic productivity if it is to get the best out of its entire workforce, young and older workers alike.  There are a larger number of people living in poverty or close to it in the UK currently than you could credit in the 21st Century, and organisations will need to be part of the framework to alleviate this if it is to turn around.


  • We are lucky enough to have a Wellbeing team with Wellbeing ambassadors in each depratment. We have a magazine, a website under construction and monthly Wellbeing events to which all employees are invited ( E.g. Stress, Quit smoking 4 life, Lighten up 4 life and heat on the heart). At each event after the opning speech by the CEO we have talks from specialists from the company health promotion unit, dieticians and local hospitals. We also have our own dietician, weekly yoga classes and regular medical check ups  and dental care provided in work in working hours for free. Our canteen features healthy eating menus and there are Suummer camps for the kids, Family events themed around the Environment , Health and Safety and so on. Paternalism is not dead. Well not in Bahrain anyway! The result is a happy and contented workforce who only leave when they retire!