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Commentary: The unstoppable rise of the nanny company

LONDON: The phrase “the nanny state” was coined in 1965 by Ian Macleod, a Tory member of parliament who was furious about the Labour government’s decision to introduce a 70 miles per hour speed limit. Surely true-born Englishmen had a right to condemn themselves and others to a horrific death by driving as fast as they could?

These days the nanny is just as likely to be the company as the state. And, for the most part, the nannying makes sense for everyone concerned, employer, employee and society at large. It is time not only to note but to celebrate the rise of the nanny company.

Nanny companies have a long history. In the early 20th century, US Steel spent US$10 million a year on employee welfare programmes – “to disarm the prejudice against trusts”, as the chairman of the board informed his colleagues. Milton Hershey built a town to service his chocolate factory in the middle of Pennsylvania where, he pledged, there would be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil”.

Henry Ford sent inspectors to visit his US workers to check for whiskey bottles and communist tracts. He went further in his factory town in Brazil, Fordlandia, putting the meat-loving residents on a vegetarian diet of oatmeal, canned peaches, and rice, and, still worse, obliging them to participate in group dances.

But corporate nannying faded with the entrepreneurial revolution of the last 20 years of the 20th century, as companies abandoned their broader social obligations to focus on their core businesses. Lifetime employment faded. Company towns all but disappeared. The one big exception to this rule was that most US companies continued to provide health care for their workers. But this was an American peculiarity – and one that companies deeply resented – rather than a blueprint for the future.

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The corporate nanny is back. Companies routinely offer their employees benefits such as free food, gym membership and flu and COVID-19 jabs. Healthcare benefits have spread from the US to Europe. Worried about the discontent revealed by the “great resignation” during the COVID-19 crisis, companies are increasingly broadening the definition of well-being to include mental as well as physical health.

Corporate nannies are doing what nannies always do – using a spoonful of sugar (or sugar substitute) to make the medicine go down. Corporate healthcare providers such as Vitality give employees incentives to exercise or lose weight. Employers provide their employees with healthy snacks – not too much salt or fat – in order to prevent them from gorging themselves into obesity. Some have rechristened their canteens “nutrition centres” to rub the point home.

Buffer, a social-media marketing company, provides its employees with an annual “unsick day” off that must be dedicated to preventative care.

Group exercises, long common in Asian companies, are spreading to the West, on the grounds that they encourage group bonding as well as better health. In Japan, Daiichi Life, a life-insurance company with close to 60,000 employees, sets targets for reducing obesity among its staff. Department heads are sent annual data on the health of their staff showing how they rank against other departments.

Even company towns are making a comeback. The tech titans are preparing to do what the candy and mining titans of yesteryear did and provide their employees with housing and entertainment near the office.

And what about the problem of overreach? Though he was undoubtedly a great philanthropist, establishing a successful boarding school for low-income children and orphans, Milton Hershey went too far in employing private investigators to record signs of alcohol abuse or extramarital affairs among the residents of his eponymous town.

Today’s human resources bureaucracy increasingly demands fealty to progressive nostrums about diversity and sexual mores. Some wellness programmes encourage a “positive attitude” among employees in the name of mental wellness. You can have too much of a good thing.

Yet on the whole, the nanny company is to be applauded. It not only overcomes the major libertarian objection to the nanny state – that of compulsion – because employees are free to go elsewhere. One study found that 69 per cent of employees are more likely to choose one job over another if it offered better benefits and 75 per cent are more likely to stay in their job if they like the benefit package.

Corporate activism harnesses the power of companies to address social problems. Purists might argue that business should stick to business and leave democratically elected politicians to address social problems. But purist arguments seem out of touch when the state is so obviously overburdened and incompetent.

Corporate health programmes lighten the burden on the state while corporations can use their size and resources to break down governments’ resistance to building anything. Both Google and Facebook are planning to incorporate social housing in their new company towns.

Purists might also argue that it is no business of the corporation to address, say, obesity. But given the scale of the obesity problem, particularly in the US and the UK, and the strength of the forces tempting us to stuff our faces, surely society needs as many people as possible, whether they work for the government or the corporation, strengthening our wills.

In general, corporate nannies are doing the right thing, using their corporate muscles to address pressing problems and nudging their employees to behave more sensibly. They may give in to the temptation to go too far and force us to do unacceptable things like group dancing or collective exercise – but if they do, we can always resign and work for someone else.

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