Is Your Employee Wellness Program Freaking Your People Out?

What Are the Best Employee Wellness Programs for Success?

It's generally accepted in business that healthy employees cost employers less.

So a lot of employers are asking how they can make it their mission to improve their employees' health.

But there's an even bigger question: should you?

There's a lot of evidence that says...no.

Rising Health Premiums, Rising Interest in Wellness

Theoretically, there can't be anything bad about helping your people to lose a few pounds or to give up their 3 p.m. French fry habit. Healthcare costs trillions in this country. And there are all sorts of studies like this one showing that poor health habits play a substantial role in rising health premiums.

It's just that when the boss seems to be taking the French fry out of your hand...that's when things can get a little, well...creepy.

Employee Wellness Programs May Have Side Effects

Yet, according to Horizons Workforce Consulting's Lucy English, that's exactly the side effect of many well-meaning employee wellness programs. Wearable technology and financially-incented health approaches may be aimed at giving people a leg up on, say, eating better or kicking the nicotine habit. A recent trend reported in Workforce magazine takes good health all the way back to an employee's genes.

Trouble is, there's little data showing such programs actually work. Worse, they just might be freaking your employees out.

"My company is tracking what we eat, when and how long we exercise, whether we smoke, and what our basic health measures are - and they are all part of the incentive program for yearly bonuses," read one comment in response to a New York Times article on whether wellness programs work. "And I thought it was bad when they started writing policies about our use of social media!!!"

Yikes.

The Wrong Questions Get the Wrong Answers

The problem with such policies is that they're asking the wrong question. Big brother-ishness aside, the bigger downfall of the wellness movement, say experts, is that it misses the point. Tackling food as the source of a company weight problem is a little too chicken-and-egg. As anyone who's cleaned out the fridge at 3 a.m. will tell you, binge eating isn't about what you're eating...it's about what's eating you.

And what's eating employees, says Lucy, is in no small part work - demands that are escalating; jobs that are jumping from wireless devices into family rooms with little regard for how they're impacting stress levels and physical health. "Just thinking about some of these things makes me want to grab a cupcake," wrote Bright Horizons Chief Human Resources officer Dan Henry when discussing the real problem with corporate wellness programs.

And junk food isn't the only culprit. General sloth is a known contributor to all kinds of health issues. But after workdays that span from 9 to 5 over to 5 to 9, who can blame people for opting for screen time over gym time?

Employee Pain Points: Where to Find Your ROI

Embracing wellness as a cause, then, can seem pretty obtuse. As an article on The Dark Side of Corporate Wellness pointed out, "It's hard to escape the conclusion that wellness programs may, for some employers, be trying to clean up the problems they've caused."

The employee pain points, says Lucy, are clear. "There's no such thing as 'quitting time,' anymore," she says. "People feel like they have to make an excuse for not answering an email at 11 at night."

To have an impact on health, companies need to go back to the source. They need to recognize that people exist outside of the office are dealing with any number of issues that can sandbag their performances.

Nobody's expecting the boss to solve a family crisis, she says. But they can provide the infrastructure to allow the employee to deal with it freely, without feeling they have to choose between family and work. "As employers, we're not hardwired to deal with those kinds of things," she says. "But we should be."

The Importance of Humanizing our Workplaces

Humanizing offices, she says - providing flexible schedules, managers who are trained to recognize personal challenges, and wellbeing strategies that actually ease pressure points like caring for a parent or a child - are the real places where employers can have an impact; the real recipe for a healthier lifestyle.

You only have to look at our employee wellbeing data showing employees with supports were better off in every area of life - including health - than employees without them.

And that's a whole lot better than trying to micromanage your employees' eating or exercise habits, points out Dan. To really impact people, you have to respond to the real problems. "What they need is child care...not the food police," he says.

Simply put, "Investing in granola is going to have negligible ROI."

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.