How to Fix the Business of Corporate Wellness

Thousands upon thousands of dollars are allotted to corporate wellness in this country. A paper by the Department of Labor states that: In 2013 approximately half of employers with 50+ employees offer wellness programming[1], and according to a recent Forbes article, roughly two-thirds of American companies offer wellness programs[2]. And, nowadays, with mandates from The Affordable Care Act and kickbacks from insurance companies, that number is rapidly growing. Most of these programs include health risk assessments (via survey or testing) and they target exercise, weight loss, blood testing, and smoking.

The idea is both noble, and also not entirely altruistic – employees will be healthier and healthcare costs lower, but also the company wants fewer sick days and higher productivity from their talent. On the surface, it seems like a win/win situation for everyone. But so often, money is not only thrown away without much to show in return (the monetary ROI of typical wellness initiatives is a hotly contested and hard to prove topic), but employees also end up alienated from their companies and feeling less valued, rather than more. Why? And how do we fix it?

Businesses seem to want to strong-hand their employees into health. Force wellness and rule with an iron fist. Their practices may as well consist of walking by cubicles periodically yelling, “You! Get well!”

Traditional wellness programs measure markers like weight loss, cholesterol numbers, and steps taken. They pay employees for taking surveys and getting blood testing, and penalize those who don’t. They oversimplify a complex and intensely personal subject to arbitrary data on a chart. Plainly put, rather than facilitate wellness, they dehumanize their participants and big-brother scrutinize.

Al Lewis, both a champion and critic in the corporate wellness landscape, puts it perfectly, “Stop doing wellness to your employees and do wellness for your employees… If you’re a general leading an army into battle, would you rather have troops with high morale or troops with low cholesterol?” [3]

And that’s just problem number one. While nationally collected data is varied, that same Forbes article states that of the corporate wellness programs offered, only 13%-34% of employees are actually participating (with 2% or 3% in the first year it’s offered). That’s not very many.

Companies seem to be missing the point, and employees are feeling the repercussions. So while there’s so much opportunity for both sides to benefit, why are traditional wellness programs a complete waste?

Mixed Messages

Many traditional programs charge employees for not completing various medical tests, or employ weight loss challenges with hefty prizes, but then have Cupcake Fridays and Bagel Breakfasts, candy jars available 24/7, and mandatory happy hours (?). Wellness isn’t about just offering up short term goals to meet. It’s a culture, a lifestyle that must be engrained in the walls of the cubicles and breathed by each and every member of the team, including the C-suite.

Lame Initiatives

Wellness should be team building in the same way that that office happy hour brings people together. It should be a topic for discussion, an activity to do together. Wellness isn’t going to get people excited alone. It needs to be presented in a way that’s entertaining and interesting. Something that people would want outside of the workplace, and even better that they have access to it at work. It should be creative and inclusive and empowering. In short, it should be fun.

Outdated Metrics

Stop weighing your employees. Just. Stop. It’s rude, it’s unethical, and above all it’s unhelpful. If you’re interested in health, you should be treating your employees as total bodies – mind, body, spirit (and not in the churchy kind of way). A holistic approach is the only true type of preventive care. Teach employees how to live healthfully. Take care of their minds and their bodies, equally. And instead of asking them to reach specific numbered markers, take a vested interest in teaching them strategies to live their best lives. Chances are, if you do, you’re more likely to get the performance you’re looking for than if you ask them to hit a certain cholesterol number.

As the Co-Founder of The Wellness Project NYC, a creative corporate wellness consultancy, we know that real health reform starts with prevention, education, and engagement. If we are going to change the dismal landscape of the state of Americans’ health, we need to succeed at preventing it from getting so bad in the first place, and give people the tools to keep it that way. Pills and symptom management aren’t the answer. Empowered people, healthy habits, long-term lifestyle change, and a total mind-body inclusive approach are the only ways to widespread health and real change. And with the majority of Americans spending their time at work, it makes sense that we put our efforts into changing the corporate wellness conversation.

While it might sound hippy-dippy, and many believe that that particular sentiment has no place in business, the truth is that a more inclusive, qualitative program is the way to make a difference. It’s not rocket science, it’s basic psychology. Make the program inclusive instead of exclusive, make it part of the company’s culture (where C level gets in on the game), and address employees as more than a cost/benefit analysis -- treat them as humans. Your employees will thank you, and your business will intrinsically reap the benefits. Companies don’t just have an opportunity, they have a responsibility. And in the process, they’ll intrinsically see the difference in their bottom lines.