Corporate Wellness Programs Miss the Real Problem

corporate wellness programs do not account for stress causes, well-being

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Everyone knows the old saying about leading a horse to water. How about a new one about leading an employee to granola? That was my first thought when I read an article some time ago about wellness in the workplace. The article makes a connect-the-dots case for nutrition-oriented corporate wellness programs. Diabetes and heart disease are epidemics, both are largely food-related illnesses, ergo improving employees' eating habits is the best wellness modification you can make in a workforce. "To not use each meal as a health-promoting intervention," says a doctor in the article, noting that employees sometimes eat several meals a day at the office, "is a huge missed opportunity."

Well-Being, Not Wellness

I hear these arguments often, some saying you can reduce healthcare costs with fitness clubs, others saying you can do the same with carrot sticks. If foods are causing disease!change the food, right? Not exactly. It might seem counterintuitive, but history has shown that corporate wellness programs are not the way to promote wellness. It's true that poor food choices can cause disease. So getting people to eat better could certainly reduce the incidences of those diseases. But wellness programs alone haven't worked in the average workplace, and it's not because we haven't done a good enough job policing the cafeteria fridge. It's because those kinds of strategies are too literal-minded.

Junk Food is a Symptom, Not a Disease

Reckless dietary choices aren't a disease -- they're a symptom.  Aside from the legitimate issues faced by people in food-poor areas, people aren't necessarily eating poorly because they don't have better options. They're often eating poorly because they're fed up with everything else. Package up the stress, the conflicts, and the inflexibility associated with the average job and you've got people who are using comfort food as a cure. The same can be said for lounging in front of the TV instead of lacing up sneakers.  Or consuming sugary drinks instead of water. They know what the better choices are. They can find them if they choose to. But instead they're throwing up the white flag that says "everything else is out of my control, so I'm surrendering to this."

Taking Aim at The Real Problem: Stress

Controlling food choices as a healthcare initiative is like blowing air into a tire with a gaping hole in it to fix a flat. Technically, absence of air is the problem. But you're not going to get very good results unless you fix the hole. It's the same for workforces. They're deflated by challenges. To really impact them, you've got to shore them up -- respond to the real problem, not merely the one that's the most obvious and literal. What are the problems? Look at the research. One study of ours shows what people are really worrying about -- specifically, getting fired for taking care of their families. They're worried about taking care of their children, what they're going to do when their elderly parents need care, and whether they can tell their employers when they have to take time off for these issues!or if they have to lie.

Fuel for Bad Choices

There's your fuel for bad food choices. Just thinking about some of these things makes me want to grab a cupcake. So what they need is child care!not the food police. Investing in granola is going to have negligible ROI. So offering better food choices to employees is a well-meaning program, but it doesn't confer better health. And really -- you have to wonder how happy your people are going to be if you're trying to affect their food choices or branding them with a scarlet J (for junk food) for choosing the cookies over the fruit cup. That same food article briefly glances across the importance of happy employees, but says the boss is largely stuck helplessly as a bystander when it comes to employee health. 

But we can (and should) do more: create positive work environments that look at well-being versus wellness, offer flexibility, support people with actual solutions. Empower them to make better choices. Don't lead them to the granola, create the conditions in which they choose to eat it. What you end up with is a domino effect of less-stressed people who have the capacity to work better, eat better, and live healthier. And that should be food for thought for everyone.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.