Corporate wellness

Is Corporate Wellness a Good Thing? I’m not so sure…

Corporate wellness programs are in the mainstream and they are intended to be a win-win situation for the company and the employee. For the most part, such seems to be the case. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the programs intended to bless could become a curse. In this episode, I speculate on the possibilities. Subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast platform (i.e. Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, et cetera) and rate it, please, please, pretty please and thank you in advance.

Hi, I’m Jim Stroud and this is my podcast!

Do you love your job? If not, that’s a problem for not only you, but the company and society overall. The World Health Organization recently published a report called Mental Health in the Workplace and some of the key facts were:

  • Work is good for mental health but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems.
  • Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.
  • For every US$ 1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$ 4 in improved health and productivity.

I found this all very interesting, which is why I predict companies will invest more in the perk of Digital Health. Find out what I mean, after this.

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So, I was listening to some guy talk about corporate wellness. What was his name?  I think he made a pretty compelling argument about why companies should focus on the health of their employees. This is some of what he said.

This makes perfect sense to me; healthy employees result in a healthy company which also means a healthier society. Win-win-win all around. As I think on things now, companies have been offering Fitbit devices as part of their corporate wellness program for years. Now there are more and more and more tech options that companies are offering to promote wellness in their company.

Here are just a few of them…

  • Modern Health is a mental health benefits platform.
  • Buoy which is a digital assistant you can chat with about your symptoms in order to make self-diagnosis simple and easy.
  • Talkspace, an online therapy app that connects users with licensed therapists;
  • Calm, a sleep and meditation app
  • Feel, a wearable designed to monitor the user’s emotional state.
  • Enlyte – an app that helps users cope with Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Addiction and other problems such as self-harm, thoughts of suicide and PTSD.
  • GlucoseZone offers you exercise therapy based on your real-time blood glucose levels (and other things)

And these are just the ones I can remember now! There are plenty of others, I assure you.

With so many options available to companies, the future looks bright for the workplace of the future; at least, in terms of facilitating healthy employees. Or, does it? Dun, dun, dunn… What happens when companies take corporate wellness too far? Can you take it too far? I’ll speculate on that after this.

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Is there such a thing as too much wellness in the workplace? Possibly. Consider this quote from CNN Business.

“U-Haul said it will stop hiring people who use nicotine in the 21 states where companies are allowed to consider tobacco use when making hiring decisions. The company has 30,000 employees in the United States and Canada. The policy will not apply to current employees who may smoke or use nicotine in some other manner. And the new rule won’t apply to job applicants in most states. But 21 states allow an employer to decline to hire someone based on their nicotine use, according to the company, and it will implement the policy in those states as of February 1.”

When I read that, I was more than a bit shocked. At a gut level, it seemed obtrusive in some way, as if a line was crossed. Out of curiosity, I looked into this practice and was surprised that it was not only legal but has been going on for some time. I guess I’m late to notice this because I don’t smoke. Be that as it may, research validated my opinion because it has been shared by many. Listen to these 2 quotes; one from November 17, 2010 and the other from January 3, 2020.

This is the 2010 quote and its from Christian Science Monitor

For about two decades, smokers have been pushed steadily out of the workplace, as lawmakers and employers have sought to minimize exposure to second-hand smoke. Employers have confined smokers to designated areas, moved smoking areas outside buildings, and limited smoking breaks. Now, some companies are opting to push smokers out of the workplace altogether.

That’s the case with the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA), an employer of 45 that announced earlier this month it would no longer hire people who smoke. The firm is the first private employer in Massachusetts to take such a step, though several others elsewhere – such as the Cleveland Clinic, a medical center based in Ohio; Alaska Airlines; and Union Pacific Railroad – have also stopped hiring smokers.

Supporters of the hire-no-smokers policy say it will provide smoke-free work environments and help employers control their health-care costs. But critics argue it’s a form of discrimination that, moreover, it intrudes into the private lifestyle choices of prospective employees.

Now compare those sentiments with a 2020 quote from The Atlantic that goes like this.

Refusing work to tobacco users is an extreme measure, but it’s not unheard-of in the United States. Alaska Airlines, Miracle-Gro, and some health-care companies forbid smokers in their ranks in states where it’s allowed, in addition to countless others with rules on tracking physical activity, weight, and sleep. This increase in managerial nosiness was encouraged for years by regulations in the Affordable Care Act, and now more than 80 percent of large employers offer wellness programs, many of which prompt workers to avoid punishment or compete for cash by counting calories, tracking steps, or losing weight. Some programs go further, requiring employees to maintain a certain waist size to avoid fees.

The issue with this approach is that it positions personal responsibility as a solution to problems that have little to do with individual choice. Codifying well-being into a competition with cash prizes—let alone using “wellness” as a criterion for hiring in the first place—posits that all workers can and should be striving for a particular set of (employer-determined) physical and mental goals that they could reach if they just tried.

What resonated with me in both quotes is the realization that choice has been eliminated from the equation of corporate wellness. Although I don’t smoke, I know people who do and smokers are going to smoke until they decide, really decide, to stop. Smoking is not illegal and those who smoke are well-aware of the health risks, at least in my experience.

Absence of liberty in this instance bothers me on some level. No, smokers don’t have to work for U-Haul or any other company for that matter. Still, it feels wrong to bar them from even interviewing. Plus, with unemployment at a record low, it seems like a bad time to implement a policy that would reduce the talent pool even further; ask any recruiter.

It also sets a precedent that companies know what is best for you when, for better or worse, you should have the personal freedom to make that decision. Today its smoking but, what if companies begin to enforce the benefits of running? Or meditation? Or even, digital detoxification? Can you imagine hearing a company announcement like this in the office…?

“For the greater good of our employees wellness, we will no longer hire or employ people who drink alcohol beyond moderate doses. Neither will we interview those who do not regularly exercise in the gym, or abstain from social media for at least 2 hours a week. Thank you, that is all!”

Wow! Wouldn’t that make headlines? I say all that to say this, giving an employee technology and information so they can make the best choices for themselves is great; I support that. Once we take away these options and make them mandates then, I have a problem with it. But, those are just my thoughts. What are yours?


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