Workplace Wellness Programs: they feel fun, but aren’t fun for everyone
I recently discovered the Maintenance Phase podcase and listed to the Wellness at Work episode.
I encourage you to listen to the episode to learn about the history of programs and how they are used in the US often to reduce insurance premiums. Honestly it’s a bit wild. I had a visceral reaction to the first minute learning about mandatory daily weigh-ins in front of all of your coworkers. I’m not talking about that here, instead I’ll share what I have learned with a focus on Canada of course.
Workplace wellness is probably one of the broadest terms in the employee benefits space and when an employer claims to have a wellness program it could be as simple as posters in the lunchroom to a complex strategy with goals, objects and an ROI. When you google the definition it’s just as wishy washy “Workplace wellness is essentially any workplace health promotion activity or organizations practice or policy designed to support healthy behaviours in your workplace”.
While well intentioned, I learned that wellness programs are often problematic and even harmful. Let me explain.
First, in a lot of cases, workplace wellness = surveillance. Think about the data being tracked - from your location to your activity and even your routine. Employees end up sharing private information about their life outside of work hours (that’s none of anyone’s business) during many classic wellness challenges.
Second, with fitness challenges like 10,000 steps, you’re asking employees to participate in workplace activity outside of work hours and your activities outside of work now play into they way you are assessed at work. This becomes even more problematic when you consider a huge number of people cannot participate in the challenge due to life responsibilities and that employee may be forced to share this private information they did not want to share with their boss or colleagues. For example, many people will not be able to or want to participate in the challenge for many reasons. Imagine someone working a second job, or someone living with a disability, or someone caring for an aging parent, someone caring for their children, someone in a long distance relationship, someone with a chronic condition. Imagine a colleague casually asking why you’re not participating in the challenge – “come on! It will be fun” they say – forcing the employee to reveal they have XYZ that doesn’t allow them to participate or be judged if they don’t reveal a sufficient “excuse” for not taking part.
Third, in a rewards-based program, selection bias is real. People who are already doing the activities are rewarded for behaviour they already do, and the program doesn’t encourage those who are not to begin these activities and participate.
Fourth, wellness programs may create and emphasize stigma. “Take the stairs when possible” seems innocent enough, but as the podcast says, “the idea that if fat people just took two flights of stairs they wouldn’t be fat is outrageous”. Obesity is after all a complex illness and we are learning not necessarily related to calories in, calories out. This also makes people feel bad for using the elevator and can drive bullying or a culture where people are judging each others health behaviours and how they look.
Bonus – Wellness is often connected to being thin. But there is much more to a healthy body than weight and often one’s weight is not an indicator of their health.
It’s worth mentioning that it does seem like having some form of workplace wellness is worth it for employers. Year over year, the Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey finds that employees who have a wellness program at work are more likely to report their benefit plan as quality that the plan meets their needs. The survey also find that employees who view their benefit plan as quality, are more likely to be satisfied with their job.
What can you do to make your workplace wellness program feel fun AND be fun for everyone?
Updating Some classic employer wellness perks and benefits that employees value: