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Why corporate wellness programs fall short

They focus on the individual, not the system.

If you have bought a pair of sneakers in the last year, or renewed your new gym membership, or downloaded a mindfulness app, you are not alone. The global wellness industry is now a US$3.7 trillion economy, according to the latest Global Wellness Economy Monitor (pdf), revealing just how much individuals are investing in their physical and mental health.

Corporate spending on workplace wellness programs is rising too: It is currently estimated at $50 billion globally and expected to grow 7 percent annually to 2025. The boardroom has embraced well-being in the last decade, as employees seek enriching experiences at work and stagnating productivity has shown the need for change.

But despite the cultural and emotional focus on wellness at work, today’s emphasis on a healthy workplace remains disconnected from management-led solutions and management-focused solutions, and shifts the onus to the employee. The message seems to be: We will help you with your problems, because we are enlightened employers; here are some things you can do. This approach doesn’t acknowledge the more complex possibility that the employer may be a large part of the problem. Further, companies are not measuring whether the programs offered actually make a difference.

The initial findings from an ongoing research program called the “Illinois Workplace Wellness Study” (pdf) suggest they don’t. The researchers analyzed survey responses from more than 4,800 people in the U.S. and measured 39 outcomes, including productivity, job satisfaction, and individual health spending, and found only two outcomes that improved over the two-year period covered by the study.

Why are so many well-being programs unsuccessful? The answer lies in a critical gap in the way we look at wellness.

When we talk about well-being, we tend to mean physical and mental health and stress relief. We know that key drivers of worker stress — which the American Institute of Stress says costs the country $300 billion annually and which in Europe accounts for 60 percent of working days lost — include long working hours, short deadlines, and bad management and lead to poor performance and unhappy workers.

Of course, workplace well-being programs that offer counseling, gym membership, mindfulness, and other abstract relief from stress are absolutely to be welcomed, not least as an important signal of the value the company places on the wholeness of a person who comes to work: We aren’t drones or worker bees after all. The growing addition of compassion as a subset of well-being is also good news.

However, these programs often don’t directly address the aspects of work that create stress. That wasn’t always true. One of the oldest corporate well-being programs was established by Henry Ford in 1926, when he reduced the working week from 48 hours to 40, in order to improve worker productivity, and other companies followed suit. Ford’s action may be the most successful wellness intervention for workers, other than actual health and safety regulation. Why? Because management made a decision that acknowledged the impact the workplace itself has on its workers.

We have reason to believe that leaders want to get well-being right, and have happier, healthier, more engaged, and more productive employees, so what gap in current corporate well-being programs can they fill?

I call that gap social health. Every person is wired to be social and to develop relationships and connections. The concept of social health is not new. It’s suggested in the 1948 constitution of the World Health Organization, which defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

How well or badly we function in our lives and at work is a health issue. But it isn’t just about personal physical and mental well-being.

It’s there in black and white, and yet only the “physical and mental well-being” aspect is addressed by most wellness and well-being programs. Ensuring social health would address the gap in social well-being at work today by focusing on the very essence of how people connect and communicate, with electronic tools and interpersonal skills, to achieve the best we can in the time available.

This is a very complex thing to do in the “always on” era, where the smartphone has killed off any distance between being at home and being at work, and when the technology we need to communicate with one another socially is the same as what we use to get our jobs done.

How well or badly we function in our lives and at work is a health issue. But it isn’t just about personal physical and mental well-being. It’s about the social context in which that well-being is supposed to be fostered. This means, to quote the 1970s feminist rallying cry, “the personal is political.”

As Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his excellent book Dying for a Paycheck, “Societies will need social movements, or maybe several social movements, that make human sustainability and people’s work environments as important as environmental sustainability and the physical environment have become.” France recently passed legislation that grants workers a “right to disconnect” outside of working hours, specifically to address the issue of information overload.

Until we sharpen our understanding of what wellness at work is; address the complex political issues around deadlines, workload, and management; and embed them in our strategies, we are unlikely to see systemic changes that deliver happy, healthier, and more productive workers.

Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm is a writer and consultant about the workplace. She is the author of six books, including the award-winning The Simplicity Principle (Kogan Page, 2020) and the The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future (Public Affairs, 2022).


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