Wellbeing and the Workplace

March 20, 2016 was International Day of Happiness. Because of the current emphasis on workplace wellness, several articles about employer-sponsored wellness programs appeared on or around the date. Many wellness programs include components that promote employee wellbeing, so publicizing them on Happiness Day would seem to make sense.

Do workplace wellness programs actually improve wellbeing and health? My past research shows that these programs raise serious privacy and ethical concerns, but are they worthwhile anyway because they help people lead better and healthier lives? Here are my thoughts about why it has been so difficult to demonstrate that wellness programs achieve their stated goals.

The modern workplace is full of contradictions. On one hand, companies claim they want employees to be healthy and happy in their jobs. Most employers offer wellness programs as part of their employee benefits. These programs urge employees to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, learn stress-reduction techniques, and take medications to lower risks of heart disease and stroke. They reward employees who achieve wellness program goals and, increasingly, penalize employees who refuse to participate. Although evidence shows that program components that target lifestyle changes don’t reduce healthcare costs, employers pump ever more money into wellness incentives. Some wellness vendors and consultants now promote employee wellbeing as something that benefits employers even if its financial benefits are not measurable.

On the other hand, workplaces are now more demanding and less secure. This leads to higher stress levels for employees, and stress threatens physical and mental health. In a study published last year, researchers from Stanford and Harvard Business Schools found that high job demands, economic insecurity, and long work hours are the major workplace stressors that lead to reduced employee health. They found that “job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by about 50%, high job demands raise the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%, and long work hours increase mortality by almost 20%.” Each of these workplace stressors correlates with more physical and mental health problems than exposure to second-hand smoke.

As employers drive toward greater productivity and competitiveness, they are also installing more extensive monitoring technologies that allow managers to watch every click employees make and every image that appears on their screens. Tracking devices in company-owned vehicles and tracking apps on company-owned laptops and cell phones allow managers to watch their equipment (and employees who carry it) 24 hours a day. As part of their wellness programs, many employers ask employees to wear fitness trackers and use apps that record exercise, food intake, sleep and other areas of employees’ personal lives. Studies of subjective experience show that that being under constant surveillance is, in itself, stress-inducing.

Workplace wellness programs focus on individual behavior and treat it as the cause of high healthcare costs. The underlying assumption is that the sources and levels of stress don’t matter; what matters is the way individuals respond to stress. In this model it makes perfect sense to insist that employees make “healthy” lifestyle choices and engage in meditation and other stress-reduction activities. It also makes sense to penalize them if they do not comply or refuse to provide information that demonstrates compliance. This model frees employers from having to address workplace practices that serve as sources of stress.

As one of the authors in the Stanford study points out,

His advice? Employers need to stop focusing on individual behavior and fix systemic problems that produce health-destroying stress in the workplace. What is the multi-billion-dollar workplace wellness industry selling? Higher financial penalties for non-complying employees, more employee screening and monitoring, and more blame and costs shifting to employees. As long as this continues, we should not be surprised that workplace wellness programs do not produce healthier or happier employees or that positive investment returns on wellness programs are hard to come by.