I’m sure by now we’re all aware of the concept of “Corporate Wellness” but does anybody actually know how effective current structures and programs are? I can remember almost ten years ago, many companies incentivizing healthy lifestyle modifications by dangling in front of employees the metaphorical carrots of lower insurance prices and redeeming pedometer miles for big screen televisions. Even today, I’m sure many of those same incentives are utilized, albeit with some slight modifications to reflect today’s demands. Unfortunately those programs, most of the time, fall short of achieving any palpable change in either the culture of the company or the overall health of the employees. A primary reason for this is the small percentage of workplaces actually partaking in such interventions. “A survey of employers with workplace wellness programs found that less than 50 percent of their eligible employees complete health screenings and that most firms have wellness activity participation rates of less than 20 percent.”- RAND Study.
There are some substantial investments being made around the world in corporate wellness programs, and almost a third of large companies have some sort of on site program in place. “Workplace wellness industry revenue has more than tripled in size to $8 billion since 2010, and wellness programs now cover over 50 million U.S. workers” – Illinois Workplace Wellness Study. Combine the lack of results with the massive amount of spending, and something has to give. Let’s begin to explore some of the questions surrounding corporate wellness programs and what to make of the discrepancy between investment and results.
Evolutionary Advantage Becomes the Pitfall
At face value, these incentive structures should have worked in some capacity, but if you dig a little deeper they skipped over an inconvenient truth about several innate human “weaknesses”. The term “weakness” is in quotes because over the course of thousands of years, a length of time all but incomprehensible to us alive today, those present-day weaknesses were at one point in time vital to our ancestors’ survival. Great Uncle Harry, alive in 10,000 BC, didn’t care about having enough assets to live off of in his late 80’s or pass on to his grandchildren (life expectancy was 25-30 years). Rather, he cared about surviving today, so he could make it to tomorrow and have another shot at procreating the next day. Whatever helped with today’s survival, like eating food, minimizing caloric expenditure to get food, or avoiding becoming something else’s food (through fight or flight stress response), was baked into our Uncle Harry’s brain at a subcortical level over the course of thousands of years to help his descendants (i.e. you and me) survive and also help propagate the species.
If you take just the food aspect alone, today’s human, specifically in a first-world country, is at a monumental disadvantage when it comes to turning down a second slice of cake at the office pitch-in. Why? Because that same subcortical wiring that helped good ole’ Uncle Harry survive a tough winter hasn’t gone anywhere. We all still crave (sometimes subconsciously) not just sweet, salty, fatty, and crunchy things, but things that we have previously formed positive emotions about. Generally speaking, if our ancestors stumbled upon some wild plant with an edible fruit attached to it, and someone was brave enough (or hungry enough) to eat it, what occured next would help shape that person’s view of not only that specific fruit, but all other fruits. If something was sweet, it usually meant calories, and calories meant survival. Circling back around to the average Joe or Jill at the office pitch-in, it’s no wonder it seems so damn hard to resist not just the second piece, but the first piece too! The deepest, most primal sections of our brain are screaming “eat the cake, we may not eat again for days!” Maybe we start to question why the cake is in the office in the first place?
Workplace culture is everything, and it can be affected with top-down policy and social constructs, or bottom-up action steps from individuals or collections of individuals. Far too many corporate wellness programs were initiated with top-down strategies, which may work for the small subset of individuals already predisposed to engage in those health promoting activities in the first place, but not for the workplace as a whole. You need to reach a critical mass for certain behaviors to permeate readily throughout a workplace, and reaching that critical mass has been the problem plaguing developers of corporate wellness programs since it became a thing.
In my opinion, corporate wellness programs almost feel like a box to be checked, to attract new employees or to cloak the overall unhealthy culture in smoke and mirrors. Whether there is little buy in from top level employees (which then sends signals to others), or lack of engagement from lower level employees, the amount of collective participation comes down to a very human element. People don’t like when things are being done to them but instead, when those things are being done for them. Implementing wellness programs for people instead of to them, combined with involving those people in the creation of the program itself should dramatically increase participation and enhance the likelihood of positive short-term and long-term health outcomes.
The more you involve an employee (or anybody for that matter) in the curation of the program that they will be engaging in, the more agency they will have, and the more likely their feelings of self-efficacy will increase. This concept can be applied to something as simple as what kind of snacks to offer in the break room of a workplace. Instead of blindly putting “healthy” snacks out, give employees a choice between four different healthy options, and let them own the choice. When someone owns the choice, even if it is slightly less desirable, the likelihood of actually following through with that behavior will increase, along with the aforementioned feelings of self-efficacy.
Just Care, a Little
Obviously, I don’t come from the corporate world in a traditional sense, but I have to imagine that merely looking at employees as a means to lucrative ends isn’t the only way it has to be. For reasons that are probably way over my head, and relate more to a commitment to shareholders/investors than employees, it seems as though investment into existing workforces comes down to dollars more than empathy. I know, this paragraph is probably coming across as extremely naive to the workings of “real business”, but I refuse to acknowledge that a company’s financial success can only accelerate at the cost of physical and mental well-being of its constituents, on both extremes of the payroll.
Designing and implementing successful corporate wellness programs is multifactorial and is in many regards, unchartered territory. Much of the existing literature on the efficacy of such programs is inflated at best, and substantially biased at worst. But those waiting on the perfect study with adequate control groups over an extended period of time, to pull the trigger on the implementation of a workplace wellness campaign at their respective business or organization, will probably be waiting a while more. Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence.
Now is the time to sit down (or stand, preferably) and reevaluate the overall health of your workplace and those in it. The current global healthcare situation has brought to light just how deadly and detrimental to productivity that living with underlying conditions can be. The modern workplace is in a unique situation to help employees and provide more than just a paycheck.
We’ll keep learning, and tinkering with what elements of a corporate wellness program actually “work”, and what even defines “work” in the first place. Some big picture things to take away, though, come back to caring a bit more about each other. Let’s all put ourselves in each other’s shoes for a day, and try to imagine what it is that prevents another person from doing what we may regard as “easy” or “common sense”. Involve employees in the design of the program, do it for them instead of to them, incorporate intelligent choice architecture at work, and practice what you preach. If those things are out of your professional wheelhouse, let’s talk. Check out the Corporate Wellness Solutions section to learn more about how we can collaborate.
Prevention over treatment,