If you’ve never experienced a workplace wellness program, you might consider yourself lucky. These seemingly ubiquitous programs spread like wildfire after the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, with workplace wellness industry revenue more than tripling to $8 billion between 2010 and 2018.
It seems like a noble endeavor for employers to support their employees’ health with one of these programs — but is it really? It might be if the incentive was to help employees be happier and healthier. In reality, the incentive is to save money by increasing employee productivity (less downtime due to health problems) and reducing health care spending. I know this, because I worked for a workplace wellness company for almost a decade as a copywriter, and I had a front seat to the stressed-out account managers trying to demonstrate return on investment to corporate clients.
Whether employer-run or contracted out to a third-party provider, workplace wellness programs have some serious flaws. One is that they don’t actually help employees be healthier. Another is that, in some cases, they can harm employee health.
Does workplace wellness improve health?
A 2018 research paper describes a comprehensive workplace wellness program the researchers designed and implemented for an employer of more than 12,000 employees, randomly assigning employees to the eligible group. After a year, they didn’t find any significant differences in medical expenditures, productivity or health behaviors.
Results of a 2019 study of a 32,974-employee, multiworksite company found that employees at worksites randomly assigned to receive wellness programming — which included modules on nutrition, physical activity and stress reduction — were more likely to report engaging in regular exercise and weight control efforts than other employees, but after 18 months, there were no significant differences in other self-reported health and behaviors. There were also no differences in clinical markers of health such as cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and no differences in health care spending, absenteeism or job performance.
A 2019 article in Harvard Business Review pointed out that some companies offer a vast array of wellness benefits with the expressed intent of offsetting work stress, but that this isn’t the antidote it’s touted to be. Indeed, if your boss expects you to respond to email or Slack messages 24/7 and you’re grappling with burnout, free “healthy” cooking classes and afternoon yoga aren’t going to counteract that.
When “wellness” means weight loss
One common factor of most workplace wellness programs is that they are focused on weight, based on the idea that not only is weight loss a matter of personal responsibility, but that if you’re “overweight” it’s your responsibility to your employer and your co-workers to lose weight. That focus can amplify the fatphobia that’s likely already present in any workplace — and also turn the workplace into a minefield.
I have clients who are in recovery from eating disorders or simply breaking free from years of chronic dieting and obsessive exercise. They dread each new cycle of their workplace fitness and weight loss challenges. It can be hard enough to escape diet and fat talk among family and friends — but to have to endure it at work, too?
Katie, a Tri-Cities resident who asked to be identified only by her first name, said her company recently changed the name and some of the wording for their wellness programs. However, the content hasn’t changed — they’re still focused on weight management.
“When it’s just a colleague talking about their fad diet, I can usually remove myself from earshot or even just say I’m not going to participate in diet talk,” Katie said. “But when it is the company running a program, it encourages people to engage in diet culture and talk about it.”
For people with restrictive eating disorders — which can be fatal — diet talk around the communal water cooler or coffee machine can disrupt months or even years of recovery work. Weight-centered workplace wellness programs do more than normalize deeply triggering diet talk — they celebrate it. This fosters a work environment that too often leaves employees with eating disorders in the very uncomfortable position of choosing between their job and a potential relapse.
When someone brought a scale into her office’s common area — home of the communal coffee pot — and posted their food diary on the wall, Katie complained that this could be harmful to people who experience eating disorders. The response she received? If someone has an eating disorder they need to get an official work accommodation. Considering that eating disorders are mental health conditions — albeit with serious medical complications — and mental health unfortunately carries a stigma, this poses a real barrier to being safe at work. Plus, being in recovery can last long after someone is in active treatment for an eating disorder, assuming they were ever formally diagnosed at all.
Even programs that focus primarily on health measures such as activity levels and biometric screenings can lead to disordered food and exercise behaviors. For a few years, my company held in a weight loss and exercise challenge — who could lose the most weight, rack up the most pedometer steps or log the most exercise minutes. I feel fortunate that I am apparently not genetically predisposed to develop an eating disorder, because the first year I threw myself into an excessive and compulsive physical activity schedule, winning both exercise challenges despite a few equally obsessed colleagues nipping at my heels. Looking back, I’m pretty sure one of these colleagues already had a restrictive eating disorder.
Is there a place for workplace wellness? I think so, but to truly help employees be healthier — and happier — it needs to shift significantly from the current norms to focus on true wellness rather than weight. It also needs to be coupled with a workplace culture that allows employees to use their vacation time guilt-free and set boundaries around after-hours communications. Just some food for thought.