While leveraging the workplace to promote better health and wellbeing is a really good idea, most of the workplace wellness programs I’ve seen are woefully inadequate. We don’t have to look any further than the trends we see to know that what we’re doing isn’t working. Rates of depression across the US have tripled since June of 2020, obesity rates continue to climb, loneliness levels are higher than ever and hitting young people the hardest, life expectancy is going down and rates of burnout are at record highs.
Meanwhile, companies continue to churn out wellness programs to little avail. So, what are the problems with workplace wellness – and what can we do differently?
Here are the top three problems I’m seeing:
1. We’re using individual solutions to solve organizational problems. Take burnout. The top five sources of employee burnout are rooted in the workplace itself – and have nothing to do with the individual employee. Specifically, the top 5 drivers of employee burnout identified by a Gallup study that surveyed 7500 employees include the following:
Rather than addressing the underlying causes of these drivers of burnout, most companies employ workplace wellness programs which merely serve as band-aid solutions, and if anything, make the problems worse. No amount of yoga or mindfulness or step challenges can make up for a toxic work environment or being asked to do the work of three. What’s required in most cases, are broad policy changes and organizational structural overhaul. Policies like paid family leave or coaching managers to engage in weekly conversations with each of their team members can make a real difference. Yet, another lunch n’ learn on how to develop a positive mindset won’t do much.
2. Companies invest more in rewards than developing programs that are actually meaningful. Today, I delivered a session called “The Power of Love & Connection” and afterwards received the kind of feedback I love most. “I had to thank you for this social session. It started as a path to complete contribution requirements but ended up being so much more. 😊” This kind of a response is one that I hear too often, indicating that the usual experience is one that is check the box. We can do better than that, and the way we can is by humanizing the programs that we deliver. Things like prioritizing stories over statistics, posing good questions that engage participants in thought-provoking discussions and employing adult learning theories can go a long way toward creating worthwhile programs.
3. We're focusing on the wrong people. Most wellness programs are directed toward the frontline workers, when they should be more directed toward those who actually have the political capital within the organization to take action. A better way of delivering workplace wellness would be team by team, with the team leader at the helm. The truth is that every manager is uniquely positioned to either persuade or dissuade their team members to engage with wellbeing – but most are just flat out unaware of the influence they hold. Every manager needs to know that while wellbeing may not be in their job description, they are the ones who are best positioned to make a difference in the quality of life for their team members – for better or worse. Most managers simply don’t know that, for example, they matter more to the health of their team members’ hearts than their doctors do. Moreover, most haven’t been given the guidance on what they can do to make a difference. This is where training can be helpful. And, most don’t know just how much wellbeing has everything to do with building a high-performing team.
If we want workplace wellness to actually work, then companies are going to have to actually do the work. That means taking a hard look at the policies that are in place and re-examining how business is done. It means going beyond "check the box" solutions and looking for, or better yet, building their own programs that are actually meaningful. And, finally, a whole lot more effort needs to go toward engaging the right people. And, the right people are team leaders.
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