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How Corporate Wellness Programs Can Alienate Employees

06/29/2015 04:51 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 05:59 EDT
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Companies who care about their employees' health are often seen as being responsible and forward thinking. But could these good intentions be paving the way to harm?

A few books have come out this year debating this question "do corporate wellness programs help or harm employees?" There have been numerous articles talking about the subject, as well as debates such as the one on the CBC radio show Q.

One of the books in question is called The Wellness Syndrome and it was written by Dr. Andre Spicer and Carl Cederström. They state that some company's extensive wellness efforts caused employees stress. Another book along the sames lines is Surviving Workplace Wellness...with Your Dignity, Finances, and (Major) Organs Intact.

At first glance, it may seem that the obvious answer is that corporate wellness programs do help employee health. However, if you delve deeper into both sides of the debate, the answer is far less clear.

On the one hand, you have the idea that healthy employees work more efficiently, are sick less often and help to add to a culture of healthiness and happiness. Also, most people feel that if your employer cares about your health and gives you time to take care of it, it is an added benefit. However, implementing a corporate wellness program and having this program actually work are two separate things. The assumption is that the wellness programs really do help people be healthier and improve their lifestyles. But this may not always be the case.

Labeling people who don't participate in the program as lazy or singling out people to participate can do more harm than good. People who are perceived as being unhealthy by their peers (this is usually based on their physical appearance) may be bullied or coerced into needing to participate. This backfires on the whole point of corporate wellness since stigmatizing people due to their weight or size has been linked to lower levels of healthiness. Although weight and body size is an easy thing to see (and thus judge) it really does not indicate one's health status. The factors that do matter most are the ones you cannot see, like cholesterol levels, blood pressure and stress.

Assuming that the "unhealthy looking" employees need help improving can alienate them from the corporation and their peers and assumes they are either doing nothing to improve their well-being or are too stupid to know what to do. When these initiatives come down from the top, they can persist weight biases and encourage continued ignorance on the subject of global health. In The Wellness Syndrome, the authors succinctly summarize their proposed "syndrome." They state "that because employees had every opportunity to stay healthy, those who didn't meet extreme health standards sometimes felt like failures."

The people that these programs "would be good for" often end up feeling like they have to prove their worth in society by participating in a never-ending cycle to self-improve (in most cases, this is about losing weight). If weight loss and dieting usually leads to weight regain and weight cycling is linked to low mood and low quality of life, then the ethics of having such weight loss based programs must be reconsidered. If you want to learn more about the ethics of health professionals recommending dieting, you can read a past blog here.

Furthermore, the people who feel they must participate or risk being judged may be already doing something to improve their health that they have not publicly announced (i.e. seeing a therapist for stress management or a dietitian for weight management). If these programs are poorly designed, participating can actually set them back.

It is amazing that even today, in 2015, well-meaning people want to focus on the same diet stuff that was being talked about in 1990! No, losing weight is not a guarantee that your employees will be less sick. No, it does not mean that your employees will work more efficiently. And no, it does not mean they are better people. How well do you work with the burden when you are hungry, exhausted from dieting and feel like your company expects you to lose weight?

The danger lies in the foundation of the wellness program. One that is designed by an actual health professional that has experience in overall well-being, not just weight loss competitions and fat shaming, is optimal. Ideally, this program would include all aspects of health as well as the proper health professionals such as registered dietitians, kinisiologists and psychologists. Including both spheres of health -- the mind and the body -- is key.

Another big problem is that these programs are being delivered by professionals (or pseudo-health professionals) who are emphasizing the wrong aspects of health. Focusing on the number of pounds lost or following food rules at the office (i.e. going gluten-free) are just a few of the nutrition related mistakes that happen all the time. Focusing on weight lost is simple to quantify to the company who is funding the wellness program, but it is a terrible predictor of overall health.

Most people know what to do to be healthy. The question is why can't they make the changes. Focusing on ways to overcome barriers to healthy living is much more useful than reiterating the reasons why you should change. Learning (again) how to read a food label for fat content or stating the reasons why you have to aim for 10,000 steps per day is fine if your participants lack knowledge. However, a more motivating discussion around why choosing high fat foods is easy or why they aren't getting 10,000 steps in every day can be a lot more useful.

The authors suggest alternatives to weight loss competitions and exercise tracking such as keeping working hours under control, letting people disconnect in the evenings and weekends, and understanding what actually causes a sense of well-being.

For real health changes, we have to get back to the science of wellbeing and stop focusing on old school theories because the dangers in promoting a poorly designed wellness program can do much more harm than good.

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