Bringing the Workplace out of Workplace Wellness
Workplace wellness programs are quickly growing in popularity across the globe, and for good reason. A survey of 3,215 American workers across industries found that 61% were burned out, and 79% had employers lacking initiatives to help manage that stress (1). In Canada, it is estimated that work absences due to stress-related issues costs employers $3.5 billion each year (2). Despite the increasing concern many businesses are showing for the wellbeing of their employees, most are taking a lazy or poorly-thought-out approach.
One of the first mistakes many businesses make when approaching employee wellness is thinking they can solve the problems in-house, on their own. While in theory, in-house workplace wellness incentives can seem like a good idea that can save costs, it creates many problems in practice.
To illustrate this, let’s use the example of Jim, a hypothetical junior employee at a burgeoning corporation. Jim is 32 years old, lives alone, and was recently divorced after a brief, 3-year marriage. He works a 9–5 job with the company; a routine, simple job that Jim is content with, but doesn’t love. His lifestyle is decidedly average, earning a wage that allows him to pay for day-to-day expenses, but few luxuries. The averageness of his wage is pronounced by the fact that Jim has a gambling problem, and spends hundreds of dollars each month on alcohol, fuelling his dissatisfaction with life. He jogs every 4 or 5 days, but does it more out of guilt than a desire to be fit and healthy. Jim doesn’t overtly realize it, but he is suffering from clinical depression. He is stuck in a rut, and seems normal and maybe even happy, regularly joining co-workers and friends on social outings, but deep-down Jim has issues that are slowly driving him into a rote life of routine and bad habits.
An unfortunate reality is that we all know a Jim, whether we are acutely aware of it or not.
Jim needs help, and the company he works for is implementing a new in-house workplace wellness program that is being put in place for employees like himself. A new wellness representative meets Jim at his desk and asks him a few questions about his physical health:
Is your back sore from your chair? No, not really, but let’s get you a standing desk anyways, they’re supposed to better for you.
What do you do for physical activity? 1-2 jogs per week, but we’re going to provide you with a free membership at the gym in the building even though you’ll only use it for a week, then go back to your routine.
Would you kindly please download the company’s new wellness-tracking app on your phone and/or smartwatch so you can track your steps and do daily challenges? There are even incentives like a monthly raffle for an iPad, and cash bonuses of $50 for employees who meet their 10,000 steps per day. That way you can bring work home with you, and have another work-related task to do (albeit a voluntary one that will make you feel better).
Well it was nice to meet you Jim, please let me know if you have any concerns about your health and wellness. You are always free to discuss your problems with myself or one of the other wellness reps at the company.
That last one is the kicker: Jim does have some issues–financial instability from his gambling problem, health concerns about his frequent alcoholic benders, loneliness from his divorce, a warning voice in his head that tells him he’s been thinking about death quite a lot lately–issues that he desperately wants to discuss with somebody, anybody, but it can’t be someone working for the company. What will they think? If my boss finds out I gamble and drink too much, and might be depressed, he’ll fire me. I don’t want to voice my financial problems to the company that pays me: I’m just another cog in the machine. What will my co-workers think of me if they find out about my out-of-work problems? Can I trust a company employee to sympathize with me and act in my best interests, or in the company’s best interests (Jim is a nut case who is a liability to this business)?
In other words, Jim needs a workplace wellness program that is out-of-work. He needs help from someone with a degree of separation from the company, so his problems can be dealt without jeopardizing his job. He needs a support system that can help him (and other employees at the company) implement meaningful change in his life. A person who is capable of focusing on his out-of-work problems (who cares about having a standing desk and meeting daily step goals anyways?).
This brings us to the major mistake many workplace wellness programs make: they are too superficial and short-sighted, typically focusing exclusively on physical wellness–fitness, diet, posture, sleep, etc.–but forgetting that humans are more complicated than that. We have mental and emotional issues, sexual frustration, lack of confidence, financial problems, spiritual confusion, and a plethora of other obstacles.
Having a workplace wellness program that just focuses on wellness at the workplace merely perpetuates the illusion that we are helping and making progress. As younger generations are becoming more open about discussing their mental, emotional and social problems, they are leading the revolution that wellness programs need to become better at adopting. People are complicated; life is complicated; problems at home feed problems at work feed problems at home. The mistake that most workplace wellness programs make is that they only focus only on workplace wellness, and that needs to change.