Workplace Wellness Programs Suck! 10 Reasons Why and How to Fix Them

2nd May 2019

What are workplace wellness programs?

Workplace wellness programs are both physical and mental health initiatives offered to employees to improve their overall health. In return for looking after employees, employers hope that they will see reduced absenteeism and tardiness, enhanced creativity, improved engagement from employees, a better employee experience, reduced stress, improved employer branding, and higher employee retention rates. Unfortunately, these things don’t happen overnight.

Such programs can provide benefits both for employees and employers, but wellness is much more complicated than reduced cost gym memberships and free access to fruit instead of cake sale Fridays. They also require a much longer-term strategy and focus on results. There are no quick fixes when it comes to cultural change programs.

Why don’t they work?

Extrinsic motivators don’t last

When people gain access to new benefits at work, you are likely to see an immediate upturn in productivity and engagement. Unfortunately, this is only short lived. This is because these programs feel like a reward for work employees have done to date. Much like an individual bonus. Over time, that reward wears off, and the new wellness program becomes old. When motivation is extrinsic, to keep motivation high, people require constant new stimuli.

If motivation to exercise the body or mind, or improve their ‘wellness’ in some other part of their life is to remain, there needs to be an internal (or intrinsic) reason the person is doing so. Lasting motivation needs to come from within. People need to do it because they want to, not because they will gain some external reward for doing so.

Old habits die hard

Wellness schemes aim to change employee behaviors, but changing habits is not easy. People often need lots of support to do it, both at work and at home. Change requires changes to conscious, non conscious, and structural factors to alter to support the change. Our article on non-conscious bias explains more about the elements to consider when orchestrating a change program so that people don’t fall back to old habits.

You must tackle all angles

Wellness programs often address one or two elements of wellness, but don’t offer a holistic approach. For example, exercise is no good without the right fuel going into your body. For example, if you’re exercising, but your diet is bad, you are unlikely to lose weight. ‘Wellness’ is a complete mind and body approach and requires work from all angles to keep it in homeostasis.

You need more than a year to see results

The articles referenced above discuss results from a study measuring impact of wellness programs over one year. This isn’t long enough to see sensible data from a change program. However, they recognize their error and are now measuring over three years. However, without taking these other factors into account, the results are unlikely to look much different.

Most change programs fail

A wellness program is just like any other organizational change approach, and according to research, around 70% of them fail. If you approach a wellness program with the rigour of a good change program, you are likely to achieve better results. Considering factors such as gaining senior level buy-in, supporting the changes (as mentioned above), and communicating (and understanding individual’s) reasons for change, will ensure programs have more impact.

People lie

Employees may be saying they are doing more related to looking after their wellness (i.e., using the services offered to them), but are they genuinely doing so? They may feel the need to stretch the truth because they fear the program will be taken away or they will be reprimanded or seen as lazy if they don’t use it, or they don’t want their colleagues to think they don’t look after themselves. People may also lie because, for many, there is still a stigma attached to receiving mental health support.

Employees feel pressured

Employees may feel they need to take part in wellness programs for concern they may lose their job if they aren’t seen to be a ‘team player.’ Such pressure could have an adverse effect on their mental and physical health.

The data is flawed

Even without realising it, due to non-conscious biases, people often tell researchers what they want to hear. Bias in conscious research is rife. Insights into employees’ non-conscious views can provide their true feelings and actions with regards to their workplace wellness programs.

Everyone is different

Don’t assume a wellness program you put in place without consulting employees will please everyone; everyone’s’ needs are different. To get maximum impact from programs they need to tailor to individual needs.

People see through the ‘kindness’

Organisations often out wellness programs in place just to see benefits for their bottom line. Unfortunately, when this is the case, employees see through the kindness. Wellness programs need to be in place primarily to create a more positive workplace experience and culture. The benefits come out of looking after employees. We spend so much of our lives at work, and we give so much of ourselves to our job; shouldn’t employers be giving us something back?

Why wellness programs need to continue

Wellness programs aren’t going away – thank goodness! However, companies are recognizing, much like with employee engagement, reward and recognition and any other programs that involve people; there is no one size fits all.

We can help

At Innovationbubble, we provide mental health support for employees through our ‘Off the chest sessions‘ (scroll to the bottom of the page to read more). These sessions give employees a safe space to discuss any issues that are causing them distress, either at work or at home. They adopt the preventative approach of helping employees to talk through issues that are causing them distress while they are at work before those issues become more serious.

Having such support available has been shown to result in a more positive employee experience and increased engagement, and ultimately more productive and happier employees.

To find out more contact us at Innovationbubble.