Employee Wellness Programs are Not a Panacea

The following post comes from Lucy English, Managing Director of Institutional Research at Horizons Workforce Consulting.

A company we know recently dropped significantly on their employer of choice ranking. They had some issues around communication and culture. Their response? Add a new employee wellness program.

This is not uncommon. The ethos of "wellness" as a fix-all HR solution is very strong. But think about it from the perspective of an employee, especially one who hasn't been managing their health well. What could be more cringe-inducing than following the link to your company's "new exciting benefit" and being faced with a decision about how you want to start taking advantage of this new perk: Do you want to have a health risk assessment? Go get a preventative screening? Start a diet?

I'm pretty health-freaky I'm vegan, I exercise regularly, I'm conscientious about health screenings. I think about health a lot and put a lot of time and effort into it. But when I am faced with wellness program choiceswell, I just close the browser window and go do something else.

People who need wellness programs the most might never even open the browser window. This stuff is not fun. We don't want to do it and we have lots of other priorities to consume us. Do we get warm and fuzzy feelings toward our employers for offering these benefits? No!

People don't really want to get on the treadmill or stop smoking or be subjugated to the unspeakable tortures of some of those screenings. Asking employees to participate in wellness programs does not necessarily build engagement. In fact, lots of employees see wellness programs as a way companies seek to save money, more than as a way to help them.

Organizations are putting too much money into something that does not appear to be making a big impact. A few things to consider:  

1. Wellness is a relatively small part of overall well-being.

In the well-being studies that we conduct, wellness typically contributes less than 15% of the explained variance in overall well-being. Want to have a bigger impact? Do something to support employee's families. Personal life satisfaction is consistently the largest contributor to overall well-being.

2. Some of the highest health costs employers bear are for depression and insomnia treatments.

The biggest stressors people face are financial and personalthose are the things that depress us and keep us up at night.

3. There are obstacles to better health which are not solved by wellness programs.

You can offer smoking cessation, weight loss, diabetes management and a host of other programs, but if your employees have unmanaged stress due to their family, job or finances, now isn't the time for them to commit to a lifestyle change. They have to get unmanaged stress under control before they can make the next big positive step in their health.

Find out: What do your employees really need?

It's time to stop following the wellness trend and begin using real analytics to find out what employees need. There are many things that employees across organizations and industries share in common, but the best solution for your workforce is highly specific to your goals and the group of people you employ.

The solutions you need are not necessarily costly ones. Often resources can be shifted from places where they are being ineffectively spent to places of more need. But you need data to identify both what you need and where you can pull some resources out.

In my next post, I'll share some little-known truths about employee engagement. Check back soon...identify