My attention was recently drawn to an article on the Business Review Weekly site titled “Your wellness program is making your staff sick”. Sure enough, the writers’ use of sensationalism and emotional triggering in the design of their headline was enough to make me read, but the bias and lack of depth in the researching of the article, which ultimately was nothing more than a thinly veiled promotion for a book – The Wellness Syndrome – based on the theme that the pursuit of wellness is in fact not good for you, spurred me into action to defend the honour (and the credentials) of wellness at the individual and organisational level.
What struck me most about this article is that it is not the only coverage the book has received. All of the other big names in the Fairfax Media suite of assets (Sydney Morning Herald, AFR, The age) ran similar stories over the past 3 months. Then there is the various other British and American newspapers and magazines which have also run stories, though at least in several of those instances, the writers acknowledged that they were actually performing a book review as opposed to relaying hard facts. Herein lies my biggest gripe with the BRW story: there is literally a bookshelf full of peer reviewed studies, some based on individual companies, and several based on meta-analysis (combining and verifying data from a broad spectrum of studies on a topic), which has amassed over the last 25 years which demonstrate that workplace wellness programs are good for the individual AND good for business, often delivering very strong ROIs of between $2 to $5 per $1 spent.
These are studies published in respected academic journals, which is a deafening roar of hard factual evidence when compared to the assertions of a single book. The book is based on a “cultural and historical analysis of ideas about wellness in companies” but unlike the mountain of peer reviewed evidence to the contrary, this study has not been peer reviewed or yet published in any academic periodical, and in academic credibility, this is key.
So why would so many media outlets take up this story wholeheartedly? Because bad news sells. The media loves to ‘reveal’ these ‘new’, ‘surprising’ and ‘discordant’ studies (I hope you can sense my cynicism) because they get attention. People talk about them and people like me feel compelled to enter the debate to set the story straight. I will admit now that I have not read this book – I have better things to do with my time. However from reading about the book it is clear to me that the writer, in concluding that wellness programs do not deliver returns to businesses and can actually be bad for individual wellness, has pointed out examples of the most poorly implemented wellness programs which have been implemented mostly in an American context.
In America the absence of universal healthcare has created the practice of companies attracting and retaining employees by offering health insurance as an employee benefit. But as the collective health of the nation continues to slide a new impetus has begun to enter into many US companies’ cost control strategies – find ways to reduce health insurance premiums. Ultimately this means ‘de-risking’ employees in the eyes of their health insurers, and the implementation of a wellness program, has become a very common way to do this. The danger here is that the outcomes sought by insurance companies – fewer claims – can easily creep into the way the wellness programs are designed and delivered.
Contractual arrangements regarding health habits, compulsory participation and big brother style tracking of lifestyle habits in the pursuit of crossing off the actuarial markers for a health insurer’s risk level shift the focus from helping individuals to improve their health and quality of life, and the company receiving the beneficial side effect of improved staff productivity in the form both hard metrics (absenteeism, turnover, OHS) and soft metrics (quality of collegial relationships, innovation and creativity, customer engagement and satisfaction).
Strict and divisive wellness programs will demonise those at the fringes in the same way that a poorly implemented or unchecked cultural change in a business will. Consider the alpha-male dominated culture which pervaded the trading floors of many of the largest financial institutions throughout the 1980s and 90s as an extreme example. Anyone who was not brazen and dominant was cast aside by their colleagues as weak – made to feel inferior – in much the same way that a poorly implemented wellness program which creates a culture of elitism amongst the super-fit in the organisation will actually drive those outside of the club away from taking up wellness as a lifestyle.
The plain fact is that when people feel healthy, they are happier. They feel more resilient and composed. They can be more empathetic and understanding with colleagues, customers, friends and families. This doesn’t require the individual to be super-fit but the statistics have time and again correlated poor physical health with poor emotional and mental health.
As scientists develop the biological models behind these correlations it is increasingly being realised that regular exercise, good nutrition, and good sleep (amongst other things) influence how we feel, how we handle (and overcome) stress, and our outlook. For instance, physical activity is now regularly prescribed as a part of the treatment for depression. In the workplace this does translate into enhanced employee productivity and positive organisational outcomes, which is perhaps the major incentive for organisations to implement workplace wellness programs. But it is not the only reason. There are plenty of organisations in the US who have been market leaders on wellness and are driven not by a health insurance premium cost controlling exercise, but by a genuine concern for their staff. Luckily in the Australian context the inclusion of health insurance as part of a salary package is not widespread, so there is perhaps greater scope for wellness programs to be driven by a genuine concern for the employee, and therefore freer to be implemented in accordance with best practice principles for individual and organisational behaviour change (for more on this see our prior post).
These programs create positive changes because they:
- Are evidence based – no gimmicks about the latest diet craze, no restrictive or oppressive regimes, no unrealistic expectations that everyone become super-athletic; only scientifically verified advice about general practices one can maintain in order to stay healthy (free of chronic diseases, deficiencies, ailments etc) and happy (mentally healthy) for life.
- Step through proven behavioural change models – compulsion into lifestyle changes is ineffective. A person needs to be educated first; ‘primed’ to accept the benefits of wellness and their need to actively work on being well, then emboldened into believing they can manage the change process.
- Educative – event based wellness involving single day data-dumps do little to help people retain knowledge or put new practices into action. Changes happen over time when people are given the chance to digest a chunk of information and assimilate it into their lifestyle, before being fed the next chunk.
- Supportive – likening a wellness program to a cultural change in a business is the best way to convey this idea. In fact, a shift to wellness in a business is a cultural change. Effectively the business is saying to its employees: “we recognise that what’s good for you is also good for us, so let’s work together and all benefit”. When a business looks to implement any other type of cultural change, or even an organisational change such as a restructure, the best outcomes in terms of employee buy-in and positive contribution towards the change by a majority of employees, comes from a consultative and supportive process, not one which seeks to divide employees along pass/fail lines.
If you feel compelled to read the BRW article you can check it out here:Your Wellness Program is making your staff sick , though you should also read this excellent rebuttal of the article by Dr John Lang, CEO of the Workplace Health Association of Australia (which, to their credit, BRW has also published): In Defence of the Workplace Wellness Program
What’s the skinny (pun intended) on all of this?
In much the same way that the fitness industry has been maligned by extreme practitioners, and ineffective fads and hypes, there are definitely examples of poorly implemented wellness programs. So it pays to know a little about what makes or breaks a wellness program – what a poorly implemented wellness program looks like, and how the best programs are different. Warrior Wellness is offering free executive briefings to those businesses weighing up the benefits of a wellness program but keen to understand how to effect the best outcomes from their investment.