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Why Your Workplace Wellness Program Is Unhealthy

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Employers across America are asking workers to eat their veggies, cycle to work and quit smoking, with the incentive of earning health insurance discounts. 

Workplace wellness programs have been all the rage since Safeway’s chief executive, Steven A. Burd, wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal in 2009 claiming the company’s Healthy Measures program that evaluated employees’ tobacco use, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, helped the grocery chain keep health-care costs stable during a period where most other American companies’ costs were rising by up to 40 percent. President Obama took note of Safeway’s success, resulting in the addition of “the Safeway amendment” to his health-reform law. The act allows employers to incentivize employees to live healthier lifestyles by reimbursing up to 30 percent of their health-insurance premiums for participating in corporate-wellness programs.

Such programs have now become a staple in many organizations. U.S. employers spend approximately $2 billion annually on wellness programs, under the belief that these programs will generate a positive ROI and create healthier employees who are more productive, take fewer sick days and are more creative at work.

The fairness of workplace wellness programs has come under heavy scrutiny, with some critics arguing they only benefit individuals who are already fit, but set up to fail those individuals who have underlying health issues that make them unable to meet the targets set by the company.

Related: Using Wearable Devices to Help Promote Employee Wellness

Yet, an even bigger red flag was raised recently by a study that showed not only may workplace wellness programs be unfair, they may not deliver on their intended effect of lowering healthcare costs.

The study, published in The American Journal of Health Promotion, the leading publication of the workplace-wellness industry, is casting heavy doubts on the cost savings advantages of employee wellness programs. 

The researchers examined 51 research studies in nine industry types in 12 countries with more than 260,000 participants and concluded that in randomized control trials (considered the “gold standard” for research trials), the ROI of workplace wellness programs had an overall mean value of -.22. “This means that for every dollar invested in these programs, 78 cents was returned,” says Jon Robison of Salveo Partners, LLC (http://salveopartners.com) - an organization that counsels companies on how to create thriving, healthy workplaces.

Robison isn’t anti-wellness, but he argues the way wellness programs are being implemented in American businesses are creating more problems than they’re solving. “The delivery of programs that pry, poke, prod and punish employees are not the key to a healthier workplace,” he says. So, what is the solution? Creating workplaces that make people want to bring their best selves to work every day, according to Robison. 

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1. Focus on intrinsic motivation. “People are motivated intrinsically, not extrinsically,” says Robison. He argues creating the conditions within an organization that allow employees to motivate themselves is key to improving employee wellness. Wellness-or-else programs may cause employees to jump on a treadmill in the short-term, but it won’t have the long-term benefits of creating healthy employees that intrinsic motivation will.

2. Engage employees. The way to ensure employees are intrinsically motivated, Robison argues, is to improve engagement. “Once you create the kind of culture where people feel good about where they work, not only do people want to take better care of themselves, but the company thrives,” he says.

3. Create a healthy workplace culture. A healthy organization doesn’t have anything to do with gym memberships and broccoli in the cafeteria, according to Robison, but is an organization with minimal politics, high morale, high productivity and low turnover. “Healthy organizations are those that have people who are invested in their work. It’s about how much they’re willing to go that extra mile to do good work for their company because they feel good about where they work, who they work for and who they work with,” says Robison.

4. Ask for feedback. Once a company has a healthy workplace culture and engaged employees, this is when Robison says it can begin to introduce wellness programs. But rather than a cookie-cutter approach that requires employees to take regular cholesterol tests and use fitbits to track the number of steps they take each day, Robison says wellness programs should respond to the needs of the employees and should include not only physical health but emotional and mental health as well. “If you’re trying to get employees to be thinking, autonomous, creative adults, the only way to do that is to treat them as though that’s what they are and you aren’t treating them that way if you’re throwing wellness programs at them which they had no say in, coercing them to join them by threatening to punish them if they don’t.”

Related: Inspire Wellness in Your Workplace, and Watch Productivity Soar