How corporate wellness programs got a bad name—and how to fix them

There’s plenty of research that says wellness programs aren’t worth the expense, but is that the whole story?

(Photo: HootSuite)

You don’t have to look terribly hard to find examples of initiatives meant to improve employees’ well-being that have gone horribly wrong. These “corporate wellness programs” include health screenings and gym discounts. There are also “random acts of wellness”—as Harvard Business Review described them in a 2016 article—or short-term challenges to see who can rack up the most steps or win a Biggest Loser-style weight loss competition. These programs are on the rise. One-third of Canadian employers have a formal program in place and almost half have informal policies, stats that have jumped significantly since 2009, according to a 2017 survey from the Conference Board of Canada. Nationwide, workplace wellness is now a $263 million industry.

But while company-wide weight loss initiatives make for funny sitcom moments, in real life, they’re pretty problematic. To begin, there are privacy concerns. Last year, Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor in the organizational behaviour department of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, broke down her research on the topic in Harvard Business Review, noting wellness programs enable companies and administrators to “amass a trove of health information.” There’s  family history questionnaires, medical exams and data from wearable devices supplied to track exercise and sleep routines. That company-provided Fitbit might seem cool, but it’s worth thinking about just who has access to all that data.

What’s more, research on the programs’ effectiveness is mixed. That’s likely because there are two types of wellness program: disease-management and lifestyle. Several studies have found the lifestyle initiatives (think, having a “Healthy Fruit Day” or weight loss competitions) don’t reduce healthcare costs. But disease management—flu vaccine clinics, on-site health screenings and nurse follow-ups—can help, according to a 2014 study by the research institute Rand.

But  it’s not just about the bottom line. “We should consider other factors as well, not just financial healthcare spending,” says Sonya Tonkovich, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). “Employees spend a third of their time at work, and the workplace itself can impact health. We believe wellness programs are important because of moral and ethical considerations, too.”

Here are three Canadian companies that are doing it right.

Boosting Employees’ Health

In a study published earlier this year, McGill University researchers found Merck Canada’s Live It program, which includes biometric screenings, health coaching, on-site lectures and workshops and incentives, significantly boosted participants’ health. According to a McGill press release, “participants [who stuck with the program for a year] showed significant improvements in systolic blood pressure and reductions in poor sleep quality, high emotional stress and fatigue.” One of the key factors in the program’s success? Having the support of higher ups. Employees felt there had been a culture shift that made it okay to go work out at any point during the day, for example.

Encouraging Healthy Eating

At Hootsuite, the Vancouver-based tech company, there’s no shortage of fruits and veg thanks to a rooftop garden. The company’s gardening club grows organic veggies and wheatgrass (for juicing, of course). Okay, healthy eating isn’t totally DIY here. The company kitchens are stocked with coffee, of course, but also organic fruit, which is delivered fresh each week, and other healthy snacks. In fact, Hootsuite’s entire culture is pretty health-focused—employees are encouraged to take lunch breaks, there’s an on-site gym and they can even take advantage of a nap room!

Prioritizing Mental Health

Wellness programs often focus on physical health, but mental health is just as important. That’s why the Manitoba Teachers’ Society launched Balance, a workplace wellness program that aims to reduce participants’ day-to-day stress and encourage self-care. Perks include chair massages and smoothie delivery, but the real cause of this initiative’s success is that it was developed with teachers’ input, which means no one feels they’ve been “voluntold”