Lots of companies have jumped onboard the wellness wagon. They’re bribing employees to exercise and improve health metrics such as body mass index and blood pressure. Even if the evidence for their effectiveness in boosting productivity is mixed (see “Do Corporate Wellness Programs Really Boost Productivity?”), they can’t hurt, right?
Not so fast, argue André Spicer and Carl Cederström in their recent book, The Wellness Syndrome. While offering more vegetables in the employee cafeteria is great, the overall impact of most wellness programs on actual wellness is so small that “I think there’s something else going on,” says Spicer, a professor at City University in London. That something is, at least partially, “the desire to keep employees under surveillance at all times.” The boundary between work and life has “radically disappeared,” and that lack of separation, covered with Big Brother-style monitoring, can sometimes do more harm than good.
How so? First, an emphasis on wellness adds yet another way to make employees feel insecure. In an era when layoffs are always possible, anyone struggling with a weight issue can wonder “whether they’ll be the next person out the door,” says Spicer. It’s not enough to be good at your job. You start feeling like you need to look good too.
Second, wellness programs often don’t get at the root causes of stress. Spicer describes a civil service department in the U.K. that was being constantly restructured. A leader discovered the stress benefits of meditation, and wanted to share those benefits with other employees. That was fine, Spicer notes, except those sessions happened at times such as 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and didn’t address the restructuring turmoil. “It’s doing things around the edges, but that has the effect of extending the workday. So people have less time for the things we know from loads of studies of individual health and happiness tend to make people happier.” That includes such known mood boosters as actually getting home on time to see your loved ones.
Indeed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that wellness programs may, for some employers, be “trying to clean up the problems they’ve caused.”
If an employer is truly interested in wellness, there may be better approaches than browbeating people into Fitbit competitions, says Spicer. Keep hours under control. Let people disconnect in the evenings and weekends, and understand what actually causes a sense of well-being.
For many of us, we’re happiest when in a state of “flow,” in which we are deeply engaged in our work. But “work has been restructured to break up that experience of flow,” says Spicer. “Think about something as simple as an open-plan office where everyone’s yelling at each other and you can hear your neighbor’s phone calls.”
Give people a chance to focus, and you might really improve workplace health and productivity–and people will get out the door on time to live the rest of their lives too.