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What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers

What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers

Today, more than 9 in 10 organizations across the globe offer employees at least one kind of wellness benefit, and more than 3 in 5 have dedicated “wellness budgets,” which are expected to expand by 7.8% in the coming years. But are these benefits really what we need to feel healthy, engaged, and supported at work? For all the attention (and money spent) on workplace wellness, the jury is still out on whether these programs are really beneficial to our health. In fact, a recent study suggests that corporate wellness offerings may resonate more with already-healthy employees, and even alienate those who are dealing with health issues in the first place, mental or physical. While there is no one solution to this problem, there are several steps we can take, both as organizations and as individuals, to make work a place of humanity and compassion. With trust at the center of employer-employee relationships, wellness programs can transform from shiny lacquer into authentic elements of an integrated, human system.

The idea of employee wellness is not new, but it has not always been an $8 billion industry in which employer-subsidized fitness memberships, meditation classes, and catered meals are the norm. In 1864, the Pennsylvania Mine Safety Act was codified into law, promising Pennsylvania mine workers minimal ventilation to help prevent the black lung, and marking the beginning of occupational health legislation in the United States. A few years later, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts put a more proactive plan in motion and became the first state to institute a factory inspection program. By 1891, the federal government had caught on, mandating minimum ventilation requirements in mines across the country, and prohibiting operators from hiring children under the age of 12.

Since then, particularly in the last 50 years, the conversation about workplace wellness has expanded dramatically as the economy has shifted from the industrial to the digital. Fewer jobs pose everyday threats to workers’ physical health and safety, but chronic stress is a specter that haunts us all. More and more employers are focusing on the importance of mental health; across the globe, mental health issues are the leading cause of disability and illness. And recent research shows that workplace culture is the biggest roadblock employees face in their efforts to feel healthier and happier. Beyond this, refusing to address these issues is expensive. In the U.S., one in five adults suffer from mental health challenges each year, costing companies 200 million lost workdays, along with $200 billion.

As a result, many American employers are no longer just offering health insurance and complying with safety regulations. They are exploring ways to build supportive environments founded on the idea of “psychological safety” and optimizing employee well-being with a gleaming panoply of benefits often referred to as “wellness programs.” (The colorful play areas, themed conference rooms, and data-driven snack offerings at Google’s global offices come readily to mind.)

In light of these trends, the consumer wellness industry has pricked up its ears. Many mainstream wellness products and services have shifted their business models, expanding from direct-to-consumer brands into corporate-benefit giants. Headspace for Work sells bundled subscriptions of their popular meditation app to companies worldwide, boasting a simple but important promise to employers: “Happier people. Healthier business.” FitBit Health Solutions is even more explicit: “Business leaders recognize the burden of rising healthcare costs to their companies and their employees.” Then, they offer “the good news” in the form of a sales pitch: “investing in a corporate wellness program…is good business.”

They’re not wrong. From coal mines to conference rooms, employers’ motivation is simple: keep workers healthy, keep company costs down.

But just because these programs can be positive for business outcomes doesn’t mean their primary purpose is to improve employees’ daily lives. For prospective hires, five-star Glassdoor reviews mentioning perks like free kale salads and onsite massages stand out like glittering constellations. But for employees, these benefits can feel like a tacit transaction. Ben, a designer and programmer I interviewed who has bipolar disorder, works at a company that offers a vast array of wellness benefits like culinary events (including fresh arepas!) and weekly afternoon yoga. “Company bulletins emphasize that these things are intended to offset work stress, and at the same time obliquely reinforce the idea that work stress is the inherent byproduct of being good at what you do and working hard at it,” he told me. “These things are often pitched as indulgent bribes to make up for the demanding expectations.”

Today, more than 9 in 10 organizations across the globe offer employees at least one kind of wellness benefit, and more than 3 in 5 have dedicated “wellness budgets,” which are expected to expand by 7.8% in the coming years. But are these benefits really what we need to feel healthy, engaged, and supported at work? Do employers have our best interests in mind, or are they mostly focused on gaining a competitive advantage and protecting their reputations (and in some cases, their bottom line)?

I am personally not convinced that lunchtime yoga and mason jars of trail mix are the antidote to our global epidemic of workplace stress and burnout. For all the attention (and money spent) on workplace wellness, the jury is still out on whether these programs are really beneficial to our health. A recent study examining over 30,000 employees at a U.S. warehouse found that those exposed to a workplace wellness program reported no significant differences in absenteeism, healthcare spending, or job performance than those who were not — though they did report greater rates of some positive health behaviors, like engaging in regular exercise.

In fact, another recent study suggests that corporate wellness offerings may resonate more with already-healthy employees, and even alienate those who are dealing with health issues in the first place, mental or physical. Consider that 97% of large American companies (5,000+) offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) to workers seeking support from a mental health professional. Given the climbing prevalence of mental health issues in the U.S., you might assume employees are putting EAP benefits to good use. However, a recent EAP industry trends report shows that only 6.9% of people actually use them.

This is, in part, due to lack of education about available mental health resources. As a marketing consultant who has worked for an array of health and wellness companies across consumer and corporate markets, including a digital behavioral healthcare company, I know from both sides that it’s easier for companies to promote sexy office perks, like happy hours and kombucha on tap, than the byzantine and bureaucratic world of behavioral healthcare. For people with acute mental health issues, the disproportionate focus on wellness benefits can be, at the best of times, irrelevant, and at the worst of times, a trigger for more pain.

“The only job I’ve ever had that promoted wellness treated me the worst when I was at my least well,” Lauren, a former chef at a world-renowned retreat center, told me. The center offered employees free access to the gym, discounts on spa treatments, private nutritionist sessions, and catered meals. But mental health leave — of any length — was out of the question. When Lauren, who has bipolar disorder, was hospitalized for three weeks after what she describes as a “mental breakdown,” she was fired for missing too much work.

Lauren’s story is just one example of what many people experience in the workplace. During my own tenure at a wellness company, while I was dealing with the vestiges of anorexia, the leadership team invited a specialist to our office to talk about the benefits of intermittent fasting. Although I was no longer restricting calories, I was fixated on regaining my discipline, and constantly blamed myself for “giving in” to my hunger. As I listened to the speaker, I felt shame. My deepest insecurities were validated, and I starved myself the rest of the day.

Looking back, I understand the company considered this access to a health expert a real privilege. Even at the time, I understood. Still, employees — like myself, like Lauren, Ben, and so many others — need support, not dogma, when they are most vulnerable.

While there is no one solution to this problem, there are several steps we can take, both as organizations and as individuals, to make work a place of humanity and compassion where individuals can bring and accept their full selves, mental health challenges and all. With trust at the center of employer-employee relationships, wellness programs can transform from shiny lacquer into authentic elements of an integrated, human system.

Many organizations rely on rhetoric to establish and encourage “Team Values,” whether through all-hands meetings, or company-wide emails and events. While it’s generally positive that more employers are talking about mental health at work, declaring its importance is not enough to make people feel safe opening up about their struggles, nor does it educate them on who they can talk to, how they can ask for help, and what resources are available to them. Likewise, it doesn’t prepare leaders for how to have those conversations should an employee choose to confide in them.

Through mental health education, companies can teach employees at every level how to build the vocabulary that is necessary to seek and offer emotional support. Investing in these kinds of initiatives also shows, as an organization, a collective willingness to change and grow in order to better support employees’ needs.

“Leaders can say that they value mental health because maybe they really do want to value it,” said Dr. Monica Worline, a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “But they often don’t know what to do other than saying that, so it can seem like they’re just giving it lip-service.”

“Talking the talk” without “walking the walk” is a likely byproduct of ignorance, even for those with the best intentions. Ignorance not only perpetuates a broader societal stigma about mental health, it also creates a culture in which leaders and employees feel ill-equipped to support, and even identify, emotional distress.

Structurally, flexible policies and benefits can give employees the freedom to make independent choices that foster their mental health. In their research, Dr. Worline and her colleague, Dr. Jane Dutton, professor of business and psychology at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, have found that employees’ performance and well-being thrive in environments with flexibility around where and when work can happen. “These environments allow employees to adapt to their circumstances — whether around mental health or any other challenges happening in their lives,” Dr. Dutton told me.

While allocated sick days and bereavement policies are common, most workplaces don’t make it easy for employees to access paid (and even unpaid) leave. “Accessibility is really important because it gives people the room they need to manage significant mental health challenges,” said Dr. Worline. To make sure all employees are aware of their benefits, managers and HR professionals need to prioritize making these policies visible and clear. Beyond this, organizations can show their support by sharing stories about those who use them. According to Dr. Dutton, doing so lets others know it’s safe to do the same.

This may seem excessively simple. After all, connecting with others doesn’t require updates to the policy handbook, nor does it produce valuable data for corporate benefit vendors.

Yet compassion at work brings “results” — for individual well-being and business outcomes. Research shows that when leaders encourage vulnerability and cultivate compassion at work, they enhance positive feelings and trust among workers — and that trust in leaders not only improves worker performance, it also helps employees feel safe opening up to their managers about personal challenges. A culture like this encourages workers “to bring their full assets and gifts to work as well as their foibles, weaknesses, and inevitable vulnerabilities,” said Dr. Dutton.

Further, employees who work in compassionate environments are shown to be more innovative and adaptable, delivering higher-quality and more consistent work. In the longer term, compassion has been shown to help organizations attract and retain its most talented workers. It’s a win-win, both in terms of employees’ mental health and organizational success. 

A simple (but not always easy) way leaders can strengthen their compassion muscles and develop greater trust among team members is by exposing their own vulnerability on occasion. Sociologist Dr. Brené Brown, who has spent her academic career studying human connection, explains that vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. For leaders, vulnerability may mean opening up about a personal challenge, taking responsibility for something gone wrong, or reaching out to a team member who seems like they are struggling without trying to change or solve the issue. If managers are more open about taking mental health days, for instance, then the rest of their teams will feel empowered to do the same.

The more employees are able to regard their managers (and each other) as vulnerable, the more work can become a place of humanity.

For employees, offering “help” and “support” to peers may actually be simpler than it sounds. Compassion is not a science, but an ongoing experiment. It is “interpersonal work,” according to Dr. Worline, who enumerated several ways we can all practice what psychologists call “holding space” for those we see experiencing emotional distress — at work and beyond:

The stigma — around mental health and vulnerability more broadly — is not going to be solved simply through better data, nor can it be overcome through an array of shiny amenities. We must learn to accommodate people who are dealing with challenges that are often invisible, undefined, and very difficult to talk about. We must show them that we care and, at the very least, are trying to understand. While I remain skeptical about the economic underpinnings of workplace wellness, I do believe organizations can and should continue to support employees in this way. My argument is not that employers should stop investing money and time in team spin classes and gluten free snacks — but they must recognize that these benefits are nice-to-haves, not must-haves. The rhythm of capitalism may be indifferent to fluctuations in human well-being and productivity. But as humans, we are not.

Whether we’re the CEO or an intern, we are all wired to care, to recognize that emotions are not problems to fix, but questions to explore and challenges to strengthen us. With that exploration and strength comes resilience, patience, curiosity. This is more than a benefit or a perk — this is the real work of being human.

Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer, editor, and content consultant. You can find her work in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, and Guernica, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @clieberwoman.

What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers

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