When Workplace Health & Wellbeing Programs Go Overboard
Welcome to the era of wellbeing! A time in which people watch what they eat, how many hours they sleep, track their calorie intake, and pretty much any food they ingest to the point of turning into an obsession.
Nowadays, more and more employers encourage their employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle that combines regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep. Behind the scenes, these best-practices, initially well intended, do hide the constant search for improved productivity and competitive advantage.
The wellbeing syndrome, driver of many excessive behaviours, has definitely made it’s way into the corporate world. Today, organisations seek a healthy workforce composed of fit employees who eat and sleep well. According to a Rand Corporation report, over 69% of American companies with more than 50 employees have health and wellness programs in place.
A bonus for the better rested
According to SHRM, 40% of organisation offer some form of bonus or rewards when employees complete pre-approved health and wellness activities. Tackling poor lifestyle habits such as smocking, overeating or lack of exercise through support groups or corporate gym sessions are just some examples of application of wellbeing and health programs.
For example, the American health insurer Aetna has made some noise in the recent news after announcing their decision to offer bonuses to employees who can prove they had a good night sleep. CEO Mark Bertolini explained that employees who can demonstrate they get at least 20 nights of sleep for seven hours in a row will get a $25 per night cash bonus which can add up to $500 a year. Thanks to their Fitbit and other intelligent gadgets, employees can then provide the supportive data to receive their financial perks.
Scania, the Swedish automotive manufacturer, has implemented a 24/7 employee program to follow their employees during and after their work day to help them improve their overall quality of life. This extensive program available to the 5,000 employees of the group consists in providing gym access, group walking sessions, and appointments with psychologists and behavioural experts who work hand in hand with the human resources department.
Performance of the fittest
One of the good reasons why organisations start by implementing a health and wellness program is to help their employees feel closer to each other by bringing a sense of belonging and community. But we can wonder how effective this approach is in practise.
In fact, the logic hidden behind the corporate health movement doesn’t only aim at bettering employees wellbeing. It’s also a way to create a framework around how to create the perfect employee to minimise costs related to absenteeism and turnover. This model could easily stigmatise people who do not follow the corporate health recommendations – for example, people who smoke or do not exercise – actually increasing the divide between people instead of bringing them together.
Despite having access to a wellness program, only 24% of employees participate in it. The fact is that we often mentally create positive associations between a person who is healthy with better work performance. The risk? Automatically associating individuals who opt-out of wellness programs with being passive and unproductive.
Making Wellness Programs “Mandatory”?
Research findings reveal that participation in health and wellness programs can be highly influenced by the inclusion of incentives and penalties. A Rand report shows that in the absence of incentives, employee participation only reached 20% while it could grow to 40% when monetary incentives were used. If penalties or surcharges were implemented, the participation actually skyrocketed to 73%.
Trends indicate that voluntary participation in health and wellness initiatives are increasingly framed by reward and incentive systems, which can concern society at large about the ethicality of corporate health programs. Especially given that one of the biggest impediment to employee participation is the worry employees have that their employer would know their personal health information (33%).