When Wellness Died

We took a good idea, chopped it into a million meaningless pieces, and worked it to death. We have this idea that “wellness” on a corporate level comes down to having your blood drawn for lipid and glucose measurement and filling out what is essentially a lengthy survey about what you eat, whether or not you wear a seatbelt, and whether or not you are depressed. And then, to add insult to injury, you are often either rewarded or penalized based on your results, if your program is an “outcomes-based” one (as opposed to “participation-based”).

This isn’t true for all workplaces; there are some truly remarkable and inspirational companies out there treating their employees like the assets that they are, but it’s not many…yet. I pray that will change, and it looks like the tides are turning, but it’s going to take many years for the culture change to blanket all of the United States.

Fundamentally, “wellness” is failing, because many companies are tacking these programs and incentives on to an already stressed and exhausted workforce without changing anything else. They aren’t looking at workflow, benefits, atmosphere, or work-life balance. They are just ignoring everything that promises to have an actual impact on the employee’s well-being.

Let’s take this person that I just made up and named Mary as an example. Mary is 50 years old with two kids in college and a 12 year old. She works, I don’t know, let’s say 48 hours a week and is severely underpaid. She also takes care of her aging parents and her sister, who is a recovering addict. Mary is stressed to the max. She doesn’t sleep well, doesn’t eat well, and doesn’t exercise at all. Smoking since she was 15 years old, she has tried to quit a dozen times. Every time something terrible happens in her personal life, and she ends up buying a pack of cigarettes. She spends 48 hours a week sitting on her butt at work and then spends all of her time outside of work, rushing around in an adrenaline-fueled fog until eventually she crashes on the couch and eats whatever she can grab quickly and cheaply. Mary is depressed, but it is entirely undiagnosed and untreated. She can’t get time off of work to see a psychiatrist, and she wouldn’t know which doctor to go to where she lives, even if she could take some vacation time (which she definitely can’t). Mary is in constant pain – her lower back, neck, knees, and hip ache constantly. It’s part of why she only sleeps for five hours on a good night.

Mary’s company decides to institute a 2017 wellness program. They don’t have any experts on staff, so they form a little wellness committee of four or five people who meet weekly for an hour and brainstorm ways to improve employee wellness. Honestly, the majority of these people are very likely to have the best of intentions. They probably strive to be healthy in their personal lives, and might genuinely want to encourage others to do the same. It’s just that they don’t know what the Hell they are doing. The first conversation sounds something like this:

Person 1: “Let’s do one of those weight loss challenge things. My brother did one where he worked and lost 15 pounds! He won a FitBit!”

Person 2: “I agree. Let’s do that. We have to weigh everyone in once a week. I’ll buy a scale! Let’s print some stuff off the Internet about low carb diets and pass it around. Who wants to do that?”

Person 3: “I’ll do it; I know a good website. It’s the one that I used last year when I lost all of that weight. Now I’ve gained it all back, but I’ve wanted to try it again anyway.”

Person 4: “OK, maybe we should like to bring in samples of high protein foods for people to try. Hey, are we going to do anything with that health assessment thing we have through our insurance company?”

Person 1: “Yeah, let’s do that, and as that woman suggested – we will give the employees a $25 gift card if they finish it. I also really want to do the tobacco incentive this year. When we do our biometric testing, we should do nicotine testing and charge the smokers $100 a month.”

Person 2: “I agree. Smoking is gross. We should have a support group to help them quit, where they can all go and talk about what’s working and what’s making it hard to quit. We can give them a sheet with deep breathing exercise instruction on it. You know, how you’re supposed to breathe from your belly when you’re stressed or whatever.”

Person 3: “We will have to do the group thing after work, though. We can’t have them doing that on work time. There’s way, way too much to do right now. My department is going on mandatory overtime next week.”

Person 4: “We should pass out those stress balls again. Everyone loved that last year.”

Mary has been handed a lot of papers about eating a high protein diet, been told that she has to do a health assessment “in her spare time,”  discovered that she’s going to be charged $100 a month for smoking, and been handed a stress ball. Next week, she will sit down and have a nurse prick her finger with a needle to find out that she is now borderline diabetic and has triglycerides four times higher than they should be. The nurse will tell her, in a clipped tone, to call her doctor and stop eating “junk food.”

At the end of the year, the committee will crunch some numbers. Wow, 92 percent of employees completed the health assessment and got a gift card – awesome! That’s great “engagement” and “participation”! Only 50% of employees had their blood testing done, but the committee decides to offer a reward next time to get those numbers up. A total of 40 employees signed up for the weight loss challenge, and eight completed the whole thing. A total of 70 pounds was lost; one person lost 30 pounds! He is currently struggling with gallstones, but that’s another story. Three people quit smoking. Unbeknownst to management, two of the three took up drinking heavily as a replacement for tobacco, but there is no way to test for that.

Success! The wellness program is an absolute success in its first year! The wellness committee pats themselves on the back and decides to celebrate by holding a mandatory work picnic on a Saturday. It is the only Saturday that Mary was going to have off this month.