crumpled papers near and in trash bin

Workplace Wellness Fails for Two Reasons

A recent clinical study is making the rounds this spring about the lack of short term evidence workplace wellness contributes to positive economic outcomes. Instead of damaging workplace wellness, this only proves my point that we can’t focus on ROI when it comes to workplace wellness in the way we focus on so many other company-driven initiatives. There are many reasons for this, but as you can see below, the researchers responsible for this data point out that it’s the short-term results which don’t hold a lot of evidence for us. There’s yet to be a thorough long-term (10 years or more, I’d argue) study showing the affect of long-term cultural changes towards a healthier workplace and there are two big reasons why. 

Among employees of a large US warehouse retail company, a workplace wellness program resulted in significantly greater rates of some positive self-reported health behaviors among those exposed compared with employees who were not exposed, but there were no significant differences in clinical measures of health, health care spending and utilization, and employment outcomes after 18 months. Although limited by incomplete data on some outcomes, these findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term. 

Randomized Clinical Trial, Dr. Zirui Song, MD, PhD & Dr. Katherine Baicker, PhD

As a corporate wellness consultant, I help companies build healthier, happier places to work. But I didn’t start there. I’ve had a long history helping organizations design and manage their employee benefit programs. It’s from this complex insurance world I began to really view culture as a vital organ to the company’s life cycle; not only in terms of healthy, happy employees, but also the organization’s longevity and financial success. I learned employers could offer up the best insurance plans money could buy–often spending hundreds of thousands each year on insurance programs–and employees would still have very costly lifestyle diseases that often stem from chronic, unchecked stress reactions, such as heart disease and autoimmune disorders. Human beings aren’t meant to feel like stressed-out hamsters and I’ve come to believe that we all have the potential to thrive; a big chunk of how we thrive is to take care of ourselves in all aspects of our well-being and to profoundly connect with those around us.

To thrive requires we change our current paradigm. It requires we throw out what we know about corporate wellness programs and build a fresh foundation. For the past 30 years, workplace wellness has largely failed for two big reasons: Purpose and Approach. We’ve embarked on workplace wellness with a purpose to lower the ever-rising tide of healthcare costs; we were promised that by implementing wellness programs, our insurance premiums would go down and that’s just not the case for most employers in the general market (let’s exclude the giant self-funded companies for now). It’s not the case, because insurance premiums are affected by a multitude of nation-wide components, linked to Big Pharma, costly and redundant testing by providers in a non-coordinated fashion, expensive and sometimes unnecessary procedures, private hospital systems, out of network expenses, and humans living longer (cool though, right?). You can have a healthy population of 200 employees with 1 heart transplant and BOOM, there go your healthcare premiums for the next 12 to 18 months.  

The second piece of the failure, approach, has to do with employees feeling like this is being done to them, rather than for them. Forced bio-metric screens, penalties on healthcare charges, boring group activities, and wellness “programs” slapped together without taking into account the industry, population type, and current workplace culture are some of the reasons employees are over the current style of workplace wellness. I’m not suggesting employers spend a lot of money just to make their employees feel warm and fuzzy. Remember, changing your culture has the power to affect your bottom line. But the pathway to that is more challenging to measure. It’s not a cash based measurement; it’s more about recruitment, retention, productivity, less sick days, and all from happier, healthier employees who want to show up and get the job done well.  Employees that feel empowered to thrive both professionally and personally. 

The “Millennial Effect”

I sat through a potential wellness client meeting last year where “millennials” was used pejoratively (with eye rolls included) to describe a workforce expecting “fluff and nonsense” related to culture and wellness. There are now over 70,000,000 Millennials and guess what? We’ve been told from day one of our adult lives that Social Security is about to run out, pensions are dead, work security is non-existent, we have an average of $30,000 in student loan debt to repay, and we can expect to work well past the age of 65. So YES, we’re expecting more from our workplaces because we recognize the cost of spending the majority of our lives working for our paychecks. 

The tide is changing, but it’s not an “us vs. them” reality. We’re all in this together and shouldn’t we all participate in efforts that contribute to a more positive place to work? Sadly, we can’t expect healthcare costs to go down anytime soon. We can certainly make efforts to mitigate those costs, but until major evolution happens on that front, it’s still worth exploring how we can nurture our workplace cultures to benefit our total well-being, as humans and organizations. 


Clients call me their Culture Coach or Wellness Guru, but my one focus is helping you create lasting holistic organizational well-being.