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18 Feb 2021
by Dawn Lewis

Toni Graves of law firm Allen & Overy explains a new approach to physical wellbeing

Supporting employees' physical wellbeing isn't just about providing healthcare benefits and gym memberships. It is influenced by everything we do from how much sleep we get to what we choose to eat. In turn, our physical wellbeing also has implications for mental and social wellbeing.




Encouraging more people to engage with their physical wellbeing was one of the central reasons that Toni Graves, global head of reward, benefits & wellbeing at international law firm Allen & Overy LLP, introduced a weight management programme run by nutritionist Clémence Cleave.

Why introduce a weight management programme?

“We have an onsite wellbeing centre with a gym, trainers and classes – although closed at the moment – it’s very well utilised by a proportion of our people,” explains Graves. “What we wanted to do was encourage people who wouldn’t normally use the gym or go to classes to engage with physical health in a different kind of way. And so that’s why we thought the weight management course would be interesting to offer.”

As you would expect in a legal firm, most people’s jobs involve sitting down at a desk every day, so employees lead very sedentary lifestyles, which is why weight management can be really important.

To find out whether there was any demand for a weight management programme, an initial introduction session was set up to gauge interest levels.

“We put an intranet article out, and at the time we were still in the office so we put posters up as well. We got a lot of really good take-up for the initial session and that’s what told us that the demand was there. We’re now on our fourth group of people doing the course. Every time we’ve had enough people to fill the class,” says Graves.

What does the weight management programme include?

Cleave’s Worth the weight programme consists of 20 sessions held over a period of eight months. It is split into two phases and employees can choose whether to just complete the first phase of 12 sessions, with one held every week, or to do the full programme.

The aim of the programme is to empower participants in finding their own path to better health, taking into account their unique lifestyle, needs and goals as there is no “one-size-fits-all”. It has a strong focus on understanding our relationship with food.

“We need to change and reframe how we relate to food and how we interpret the signals that are sent from our brain to our body,” explains Cleave. “We have to understand why we engage in eating and know what is in our control and what isn’t.”

The first phase of the programme focuses on the tools that can enable employees to look after their weight. “We look at nutritional science, portions, how to manage appetite etc but we also look at behaviours – what can we change in our environment to help us make the right choices,” says Cleave. “And we also look at how we relate to food, including using techniques from the third wave therapy – mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy, compassion and behavioural activation.”

In the second phase the class meets less frequently, and focusses on how to use the tools that were learned about in the first phase to create long-term habit and behaviour change. As Cleave notes, “it’s one thing to lose weight, but it’s another to maintain weight loss.  The idea is to transform the way that we feed ourselves in the long run and make it sustainable.

“It’s not a fad diet or a quick thing, it’s looking at reframing the way that we feed ourselves.”

The programme’s focus on mindfulness, removing self-judgement and an individual approach to weight management was one of the things that appealed to Graves.

“We’ve focused a lot on mental health over the past two to three years, so it felt that the approach that Cleave takes with Worth the weight really fits with promoting positive mental health as well as the physical aspects,” she adds.

How the programme fits with Allen & Overy’s other wellbeing initiatives and benefits

Throughout the programme links are made to Allen & Overy’s other wellbeing benefits. For instance, the firm offers access to meditations through Headspace, which recently released a series of meditations around mindful eating. Participants on the Worth the weight programme are signposted to these for further support.  

Other connections with Allen & Overy’s wider wellbeing programme include inviting in people from their healthcare provider Nuffield Health to talk about the other benefits that are available to employees during the session on physical activity. “That works,” says Cleave. “People will then go and log on to the wellness website section and sign-up to events and challenges.”

Graves adds that the company regularly hold walking, running and cycling challenges, so encouraging more employees to sign up to these, especially if it’s for the first time, is another positive outcome from the nutrition programme.

There have also been benefits for social wellbeing. With limited opportunities to interact with colleagues as a result of lockdown, the camaraderie and support that built up among participants on the programme has also had a positive effect.

“We’re trying to encourage our people – particularly those who are feeling lonely or isolated – to find a community, and this is a really good example of that. We’ve also got lots of other people networks, and our A&O choir. So there are many opportunities for people to find a community that works for them,” says Graves.

Supporting long-term change

Measuring the success of such a programme can be difficult as it can be hard a gauge how people and the organisation will benefit over the long term. However, Allen & Overy is collecting metrics to ascertain how it has impacted the participants and not just looking at weight loss.

“From the beginning of the programme I’m trying to assess people’s baseline – how they feel about their relationship with food, their level of confidence in feeding themselves well, their level of physical activity, body confidence etc – all of these elements that are key for a better quality of life and overall health,” says Cleave.

In addition, there has been positive feedback which has been used to promote future sessions. As one participant said: “The helpful tips, tools and delicious recipes that Clem provided us with really helped me to NOT pile on the pounds during lockdown. Having a group of like-minded people meeting regularly kept me motivated, focused and determined.”

The programme has been so successful that those who have completed the course have continued with a monthly session called Beyond Worth in order to maintain the momentum generated by Worth the weight.

“There is such a nice atmosphere and community where people will support each other, and encourage one another to stay healthy in a very positive way,” says Cleave. “So it’s a really good add-on if you want some continuity.”

For Graves, the real success of the programme is not just about helping people who may not have ordinarily engaged with physical wellbeing initiatives to manage their weight and improve their physical health, but also about improving people’s confidence.

“It absolutely educates people and improves their confidence in being able to look after themselves and feeling positive about themselves,” she adds.

The author is Dawn Lewis, content editor at REBA.