fitness · health

Problems with workplace wellness plans: where do I start?

A couple of weeks ago, a big study on the effects of workplace wellness programs came out, and the news was not good (for promoters of those programs).  Researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign designed a large randomized controlled study to test whether workplace wellness programs would result in things like more trips to the gym, lowered healthcare spending, and 37 other potential positive outcomes.  They came up with nothing. nada. zilch. zippo.

A zero with a line through it.
A zero with a line through it.

Co-author David Molitor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was quoted here as saying, “across 39 different outcomes that we looked at, we found zeroes — and fairly precise zeroes — on almost all outcomes,” including health spending.

He noted two exceptions: Workers who joined the wellness program did become likelier to be screened for health issues, and to say they thought their employer put a high priority on employee health.

You may be wondering:  what exactly are workplace wellness plans?  They’re employer-sponsored programs for employees like smoking cessation programs, blood pressure screening, and also exercise promotions like running or walking programs, Fitbit or pedometer promotions and competitions, gym membership or yoga benefits,  flextime offerings for exercise during the workday, etc.

This seems like a good idea, right?  Encouraging and maybe even paying employees to exercise, get screened for disease risk factors, connect with other workers to form fun movement groups– how could it not work?  Don’t you think you’d be healthier if your bosses set aside time for you to do side planks at work with your colleagues?

Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.
Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.

This is part of the problem.  Wellness programs don’t necessarily take into account what it takes for someone to be able to manage both work and working out under workplace time constraints.  A commenter for the article said this:

One problem at my work is they’ll let you take an hour, three times a week, but you cannot put that hour right before you leave, you have to report back to your desk from the gym before you leave the building….It takes too much work for me to change, get sweaty, take a shower that includes washing my hair, drying my hair, and re-applying make up all so that I can go back and sit at my desk for 10 minutes….Out of the 60 minutes I’m allowed, I’m lucky if a full 30 is actual exercise.

In this case, the constraints of the program didn’t work for her (and possibly not for lots of women, especially ones who are required to look and dress a certain way in their offices).

In addition, if companies encourage or expect their employees to engage in so-called health promotion activities, they should realize that these activities place an extra burden on workers in terms of time, scheduling, logistics, other resources (e.g. special clothing, time for cleanup, food and hydration, warm-up and cool-down periods).  It’s important to acknowledge work reality:  most employees are required to do more in less time, often for less money and fewer benefits (this is true for my job as a professor as well).  Responding to the expected stresses and illness that come out of such an atmosphere by handing out Fitbits is not going to do the trick.  Another commenter put it this way:

I have experience with a company that removed yearly bonuses, fun company paid events… and weekly paid lunches. Then they piled on so much work that break times became unpractical and overtime became expected. When turnover skyrocketed, they started a Stress Relief Team to come up with ideas like: plant a community garden and map out a walking path around the parking lot. Needless to say, none of this worked because it failed to address the issue of overworked employees…

Then there’s the worry that actually participating in the wellness program will get you in trouble with management because of the ever-expanding workday.  Here’s what another commenter said:

It’s one thing for companies to tout work-life balance, provide wellness programming of various types, and monetarily incentivize them to participate. In reality, when management is squeezed for results, scheduling early morning a/o lunch meetings is the norm, and your peers are wondering how does so-and-so have time to fit in a workout during their day…….participation in these programs is stymied.

If you want to read more about criticisms of workplace wellness programs, I recommend this Slate article, which is a data-packed scathing indictment of them.

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study is a multi-year project, and their current results (of zero effectiveness!)  are after year one.  They’ll be continuing to gather and analyze data, including biometric and more survey data.  All this is important.

But as a feminist, a researcher with a soft spot for qualitative data, and an often-harried employee myself, I wish that the study would include this:  asking people what they think they need, and then (in the name of science), giving it to them.  And seeing what happens.

Just a thought.

Text saying "crazy idea".


5 thoughts on “Problems with workplace wellness plans: where do I start?

  1. Oh I totally agree with the midday workout challenge!!! Lots of my short haired, non-make up wearing male friends do lunch time runs. That is totally unpractical for me as it would take 30 minutes for me to reassemble my accountant appearance afterwards! This is me as a self-employed person with no one telling me how I have to look. It is just not time efficient at all for me, and I suspect many women who have a workplace appearance that includes even basic hair and make-up maintenance. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  2. Hmmm… it’s a tough one. In an ideal world, we’d all work a reasonable amount of hours so we could fit exercise around those, and then there wouldn’t even be a need for this sort of programme. I feel like it might often be a cop-out for companies who then expect employees to put in massive amounts of hours, but “care for their staff’s well-being”. Personally, I’m lucky in that I work in a super flexible and casual place where the shower is right across the hall from my office, so I can go running at lunch. We also have a lot of staff clubs centred around different sports, but there’s no compensation for it and the employer isn’t involved, plus they mostly take place outside of working hours. I much prefer this kind of welcoming climate to one where the employer becomes too involved.

  3. My preference is financial support for gym memberships, etc.
    I can choose where I want to work out and when. I definitely don’t want to do it at work.

  4. That Slate article is extraordinary and eye-opening, Catherine – thanks. It also made me heart-sick.

    As a Canadian whose basic health care costs are almost entirely, directly supported by government (OHIP, Ontario’s version of the Canada-wide health insurance program, covers everything except out-of-country care and drugs below a certain threshold – both of these are employer-covered for me), this was staggering primarily because it’s completely foreign. Now, I work at a university with a very powerful faculty union, so it’s possible that I am simply fortunately naive here – I’d love to know what other Canadians on the blog in regular office jobs go through. But my sense is that, because employers in Canada do not incur basic health costs as American employers do, there’s no need for the more draconian elements of health screening that covertly focus on shifting costs onto employees. What workplace wellness (tries to) mean up here I’d love to know.

    A couple of years ago, my school made a change to our extended health benefits (these include a portion of $ per year for things like massage, chiropractors – non-essential preventative stuff), inviting us to transfer funds into a wellness account to pay for gym memberships, etc, should we wish. The total $ amount available for extended health did not change, but the ways in which we were permitted to use it did – provided that we selected “wellness account” as an option in the yearly allocation exercise. I found this frustrating: it was a way to pretend Western was willing to support my fitness costs when really it would do so only at the expense of my OTHER wellness costs, like sports massage. But in truth, given that I have up to $2000/year to allocate at my own discretion, that’s a small frustration compared to the things this article describes.

    On this sad day, when news of another horrific school shooting in the states has broken, this is also a reminder that America’s corporation-first attitude toward democracy rarely ends up benefiting the health and wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

  5. We do have an employee wellness program for past few years. I work for a large public sector employer. There are the occasional fitness programs which are tight. We also have certain events that encourage lunch time walking and cycling at different times of year. We have to remember that some people need to be even encouraged to walk for over 40 min. I’ve appreciated lunch time speakers on certain subjects.

    As a cyclist who has commuted by bike for past few decades, I actually never used available shower facilities on site: sure I sweat but not so terribly for early morning rides to work.

    Oh yea, I’m here in Canada.

Comments are closed.