If you work at a large or even medium-sized company, it's likely you have access to some kind of "wellness program." Over the last decade, many organizations have begun to monitor and intervene in their employees' health and well-being, believing they can raise productivity, cut health care costs, and perhaps make themselves more attractive as employers. Rand Corporation says 85% of companies with more than 1,000 people have at least one wellness initiative.
"Corporate wellness" is now a $6 billion industry covering many aspects of health. Employers use financial incentives to encourage us not to smoke or to watch our cholesterol. They penalize employees who get too fat, or offer discounts on health insurance to those who slim down. And, in theory, it all makes perfect sense. We all have a stake in being more healthy.
But there's a problem. The evidence that wellness initiatives work is limited; in fact, there's more to say the $6 billion is being wasted. One problem is awareness. Gallup found only 24% of staff at companies with programs participate in them, largely because they don't know about them.
"The wellness programs are not having nearly the impact they could be having," says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and well-being. "I think they're well intended but it doesn't matter if they don't get used."
Peer-reviewed studies show various unsatisfactory outcomes. One concluded corporate wellness can be "discriminatory" because it effectively shift health care costs to people with health problems. Another found that companies don't save on health care spending overall. The Rand study, which looked at 600 businesses with at least 500 employees each, found modest reductions in health care costs, but not ones that were "statistically significant" that could be tied to the programs themselves.
So why is corporate wellness not living up to its claims? Harter says companies fail to align the programs with mainstream goals. "It really starts with the type of organization a company wants to be. Is the organization aligned with a framework that makes sense to people?" he says.
Companies introduce wellness programs without considering the whole person, including their sense of "purpose," their social relationships, their financial welfare, and their sense of community. "These five elements are highly interdependent. If you just try to solve physical well-being without addressing the other four, you're really missing out on a lot of opportunity to improve that physical well-being," he says.
Gallup says employees feel a higher sense of well-being when their bosses also feel good about themselves and give time for staff to participate in wellness programs—say by letting them take off 30 minutes to go to the gym. "You're busy with your work and unless the organization really stands behind what they're offering and make some minor adjustments, it doesn't work as effectively," Harter says.
At present, only 12% of employees "strongly agree" their employer is improving their well-being. Only 6% of all employees feel they are "thriving" across all five elements of workplace well-being. "A majority of employees believe their job is a detriment to their ability to achieve higher well-being," Gallup says. Perhaps the fundamental reason corporate wellness isn't working is because work is getting in the way. There's no time and space to get healthy when we have to do all the other things we have to do.