When the pandemic closed offices in 2020, the booming corporate wellness industry was disrupted overnight. There was already growing evidence that such programs had low participation, privacy issues and failed to bring cost savings. With flashier on-site offerings like climbing walls and kombucha bars deserted, and facing a public health crisis unprecedented in modern times, the need for organizations to help their employees stay well was paramount. However, the good news is that Covid-19 has given companies an opportunity to re-focus on what truly matters when it comes to wellness. As firms re-evaluate, the most effective changes may be simpler than they realize.
The corporate wellness landscape
Corporate wellness, a $50 billion industry, has exploded in the last decade and is predicted to continue to rise by 7% annually 1. Typical offerings include biometric screenings, gym reimbursements, coaching to quit smoking, yoga classes, healthy snacks, at-work flu shots and step-tracking competitions. More eye-opening are Google’s nap pods, Nike’s climbing wall and Olympic-sized pool, Transferwise’s office sauna and publisher Rodale’s community gardens 2 3 4. A few organizations take a harsher approach, like University of Pennsylvania Health System, which has a ban on hiring smokers 5 6.
After the start of pandemic lockdowns, in-person programs were replaced with virtual wellness offerings like fitness classes, meditation apps and support groups. Many provided home-office allowances for employees to buy ergonomic furniture to help with posture and monitors to prevent eye strain 7. Some even contributed to their employees’ home-gyms, like investment bank Jeffries, which offered a Peloton bike with a one-year subscription; a Mirror workout system; or an Apple Watch SE, iPad Air and AirPods Pro 8. Employers feel a responsibility for promoting wellness. Healthier employees are more productive, less likely to be absent or make claims for workers’ compensation and disability, and reduce insurance costs 9 10. Wellness perks also attract potential hires.
On the other hand, wellness programs have been surprisingly unsuccessful. One rigorous evaluation at a 12,000-person organization that offered health screenings, online assessments, wellness activities and financial rewards found that, after one year, it had not improved their healthy behavior, productivity or self-reported wellness. Nor had their program led to a decline in health expenditure 11.
Research also finds that workers who are most likely to make use of wellness programs are those who are already well 12. Depression is estimated to impact 20% of executives and up to 40% of CEOs 13 (the greatest cause of illness and disability globally), but workplace mental health programs are particularly under-subscribed, with only 7% of employees accepting company offers of mental health support 14 15.
What wellness programs miss?
Work is a significant source of stress for workers around the world. American workers in particular report their job as their no. 1 source of stress 16. Although organizations have commendably adapted their wellness programs during the pandemic, employer expectations may be undermining these investments. The shift to working from home further blurred the distinction between home time and working hours, making it even more difficult for employees to switch off, and some had the responsibility of caring for their children while schools and daycare were closed 17 18. Some managers felt free to contact workers after hours even for non-emergencies. Worried that they’ll be seen as slacking off in offices that view responsiveness as a sign of commitment, some workers feel they have to check email and team chat tools at all hours 19. All of this meant that, by the end of 2020, workdays increased by 2 to 3 hours per day and fewer vacation days were claimed 20 21 22.
These disruptions have had enormous impact on mental health, putting people at serious risk of depression, anxiety and burnout 23. Throwing Fitbits and Peloton bikes at people won’t compensate for a bullying boss, competitive hostility from colleagues, a grinding workload or the burnout that workers around the globe are reporting 24. Employees, particularly younger ones, increasingly say that high salaries do not compensate them for a poor quality-of-life, and that work-life balance and a positive workplace culture are worth taking a pay-cut for 25.
The problem with wellness programs is that the focus is too often on changing employee behavior, even when poor health is at least partly caused by the employer. Organizations have an opportunity to look honestly at the various sources of job stress, such as lack of flexibility or diminishing boundaries around work, which lead to burnout 26 27. Moreover, workers are understandably wary of employers who want to define standards of health for their employees, monitor the results like an Army Fitness instructor and collect their health data 28. Organizations need to recognize that workers can feel alienated if they’re unhappy on the job, or may resent their employer’s intrusion into the personal matter of health and wellness.
Finally, programs that focus on individual behavior change don’t account for the larger structural forces that make it difficult to adjust habits. For example, if someone lives in an area without safe and pleasant outdoor spaces, exercise is much less appealing.
A more genuine workplace wellness
A small but growing number of organizations are recognizing the connection between providing their employees schedule autonomy and factors like job satisfaction, focus and staff turnover 29 30. Some have pushed ‘asynchronous-first communication,’ where team members can work during their preferred hours, meetings are limited and ‘deep work’ – the ability to focus without distraction – is encouraged over responsiveness 31 32. A few companies and nations are beginning to experiment with a ‘right to disconnect’ and a four-day work week. App maker Buffer recently reported that employees’ happiness and stress levels improved without any loss in productivity after piloting this approach when Covid-19 hit, and has decided to continue through 2021 33. Accounting firm Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) announced a ‘work when you like’ policy, which, post-pandemic, will let employees work from home a couple of days a week, start when they'd like and take off after lunch on Fridays in July and August 34. Even workplaces that can’t shorten the week can encourage logging off during non-work hours and taking vacation.
Organizations should also re-evaluate wellness programs that are structured around rewards, competition, moralistic appeals, or that tie a health outcome to employment or insurance costs. Events like weight-loss challenges can embolden bullies, impart harmful dieting behaviors and exacerbate eating disorders or act to exclude people with disabilities 28 35 36. Moreover, motivating healthy behaviors with extrinsic rewards can deter people from self-motivated change 37. By denying employment to smokers, or passing on higher insurance costs when an employees’ weight exceeds what is considered healthy, organizations could actually be contributing to worse health outcomes by promoting stigma and increasing the costs of managing a chronic condition, not to mention possibly violating discrimination laws 38 39.
Mental health services should be confidential and provided independently. You could increase uptake by allowing the employee to choose their own health goals, help to reduce costs or provide insurance with good mental health coverage, support their choices when selecting the appropriate health professionals to help them and ensure that the company is not intruding where it is not wanted. Measure health success in numbers of ‘employees retained’ rather than ‘sick days not lost’. Consider making it compulsory to take vacation entitlements 40 41.
Finally, employers can broaden how they think about wellness by advocating for changes that improve the communities their workers live in, such as supporting upgrades of public transportation 42.
It’s not just workers who benefit. There is a strong connection between employee wellbeing and productivity and performance improvements 43.
As Jordan Pierce, CEO of Fringe says: ‘The sooner employers stop the paternalistic habit of defining what wellness means, the sooner they can begin to make a difference in their employees’ well being during this time of crisis.’ 44 Workers may have a more holistic understanding of wellness than organizations. Something that can’t be reduced to a number on a blood pressure pump, or performance in a step competition, but rather is about living a ‘good life’ that includes rest, strong relationships and fulfilling work.
Both sides, employees and employers, can benefit from improved working conditions and company-supported downtime.
Elaine Meyer is a writer who covers public health, work, and technology. In the past, she worked in public health communications at Columbia University and NYU and as a reporter on legal and policy news. She has written for outlets including Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, Law360, and Pacific Standard, as well as tech companies, and academic medical centers like Columbia, NYU, and Weill Cornell Medicine.
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