If you’ve been paying attention to workplace trends over the last few years, chances are you’ve heard the term ‘workplace wellness’. Companies across the globe have been implementing wellness initiatives, often going so far as to list their devotion to health/wellness as a selling point on job postings.
The problem is — there isn’t a universal definition for ‘workplace wellness’. These programs can range from a poster in the breakroom outlining healthy eating tips, to mandatory employee 5ks.
There also isn’t much regulation over benefits employers can offer for opting into these initiatives. Similarly, some programs inadvertently create hidden costs that have a negative impact on those who opt-out.
Because there is little consistency when it comes to what constitutes a workplace wellness program, the data on this topic is mixed and sometimes downright contradictory.
A statistic from Zippa reported that “80% of employees whose employers are engaged in their wellness say they enjoy work”. But based on research published in The Harvard Business Review, “many programs seemed to have the opposite of their intended effect… One big wellness program we looked at led previously happy employees in a stable job environment to become anxious about losing their jobs.”
So—what’s the point of workplace wellness? What actually helps employees, and what hurts?
Let’s take a look.
Though the concept of workplace wellness varies across industries and work environments, there are consistently two categories that most of these programs fall into:
Wellness in the form of services/goods offered through the company
Wellness in the form of required activities on the part of the employee
The first category tends to be much less controversial than the second.
An example of a wellness initiative that would fall into category one is stocking the break room with nutritious food that employees can snack on. Another example is having a group of therapy dogs come into the office once or twice a month, to help ease employee stress.
These types of initiatives have been shown to be effective. One study which looked at the effects of bringing therapy dogs into the office found that “99% of employees felt their mood had improved… [and] 99% of employees felt more productive,” after visiting with the animals.
So why are these programs successful? It’s not just because people love dogs. It’s also because this type of initiative is entirely optional, and doesn't require anything of the employee.
These wellness activities are ‘take it or leave it’ options that don’t have hidden costs for those who can't or don’t want to participate.
Looking at the section above, ‘optional’ is the keyword there. Programs that are entirely optional, meaning there is no cost whatsoever to opting out, are mostly harmless. When looking at programs that are mandatory, or which include financial incentives to join, however— that’s where things start to get messy.
A 2019 study estimated that “20% of large firms with a wellness or health screening incentive had a maximum incentive of more than $1,000. On average, the maximum value of the incentive was $783.”The term ‘health screening’ refers to evaluations that typically come in the form of personal health surveys, called Health Risk Assessments (HRA), or physical exams conducted by a medical professional. In many cases, the results of such screenings are shared with employers, who then use this information to create wellness programs aimed at things such as weight loss or quitting smoking.
But what if you don’t have time to opt into a weight loss program? Or what if you have mobility issues that make participating in a step-counting challenge impossible? Then kiss your $783 dollars goodbye.
There was even one example of a workplace wellness program at Yale, which only allowed employees to opt-out if they paid a fee of $25 a week ($1,300 a year).
The goal of most workplace wellness programs is to make employees healthier, reduce stress levels, and therefore improve productivity and save the company money in the form of health costs.
Some argue they do the exact opposite.
Three different studies from 2018 looked at how certain wellness programs could be driving workplace stigma and discrimination. That research identified these programs “as potent catalysts of weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, especially when they emphasized individual responsibility for health outcomes.”
Another study found that wellness programs don’t even save companies that much money, estimating that they “produce a return-on-investment (ROI) of less than 1-to-1 savings to cost.”Law experts, like Ifeoma Ajunwa, quoted here in the Harvard Business Review, have argued that these programs could violate employee privacy. Ajunwa states, “there are insufficient protections for employee health data, leaving workers vulnerable to privacy invasion and employment discrimination.”
Lastly, workplace wellness programs just might not work.
There have been a number of studies looking at the effectiveness of wellness programs, and the results are mixed at best. Furthermore, many have cast doubt on methods used in workplace wellness studies, especially those which rely on ‘observational data’ as opposed to doing a randomized controlled trial (which reduces bias and tends to lead to more reliable results).
In one randomized control study, researchers “found no significant effect of the [wellness] program on employee health measures or medical use.”
Workplace wellness programs often don’t deliver on their promises of improving health or saving money. But that doesn’t mean employers should abandon the idea of employee wellness altogether.
Instead, try keeping your initiatives simple and research-based. Therapy dogs and healthy snacks in the breakroom are a great place to start, but if you’re looking to kick it up a notch, and are interested in investing real money into your employees' well-being, one proven method of increasing the happiness and health of your employees is to offer them more time off.
Caring about your employees' mental and physical health isn't a bad thing, it’s just not as straightforward as the wellness industry might have you believe.
Thousands of full-time and remote jobs in every industry. Search jobs.
We'll find you the right candidate, fast. Get started.
Our recruiters connect people with great opportunities and help our clients build amazing teams. Learn more.