Problems with workplace wellness plans: where do I start?

A group of women in shorts and T shirts and casual clothing, outside a building, before a group walk.

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.

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.

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.


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