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3 Reasons Corporate Wellness Failed — And How To Change The Game

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(Story by Henry Albrecht originally appeared in Forbes)

Company wellness programs have largely failed, and I would know. From my view on the front lines of this industry for over a decade, it’s clear why the hodgepodge industry of “corporate wellness” has detractors – particularly among the employees the programs are supposed to serve. Many of the programs are punitive, so they feel like something done to employees rather than for them. Even the most positive of these programs are often superficial – they don’t elevate company culture, inspire commitment, or tie to business goals. Any program that alienates, annoys, and distracts those it means to serve will fail to deliver results in the long term.

There’s no shortage of “wellness gone wrong” examples, starting with the programs that held people accountable for achieving biometric values but never gave anyone a hint that the company understood or cared about their lives. And frankly, for every egregiously punitive approach, there were (and still are) 10 programs barely skimming the surface of their potential. They’re feel-good distractions embraced by those already in the club. As corporate investments and priorities, they rank somewhere between the company party and bean bags in the conference rooms. Do they even matter?

Most corporate wellness (now often called “well-being”) programs have so far failed to deliver on their potential. But the good news is, with a more holistic well-being and engagement model, employers can achieve much bigger results than companies and employees have envisioned to date – results that go well beyond health and health costs to something richer: true work engagement. Here are three current problems – and possible solutions:

Wellness Programs Don’t Work the Way Our Brains Work

First, a bit of history is in order. When we launched Limeade, our goal was to offer a new way to measure and improve well-being from a place of great influence: the workplace. Yet as we got to know the world of “corporate wellness” – a world that ideally should help employees feel healthier and happier – we found (sometimes with the help of consultants and sadly, often on our own) its underbelly.

Beneath surface-level messaging about improving health, most traditional workplace wellness programs were exclusively about slashing employer’s health costs. One premise: healthier people will cost less to insure (and they will show up for work more often). Luminaries embraced this simple logic, and the model spread. There was a second and more suspect premise embedded, though: that you can pay people to comply. Those who don’t won’t get the same insurance benefits, effectively shifting costs from willing participants to unwilling ones. And it worked… in a short-term way.

Ultimately, however, this punitive Industrial Revolution mentality often created more resentment than value. It sent a clear message of accountability, which on the upside saved some lives and caught some serious issues early with its focus on important preventive care protocols. As someone in his late forties whose father suffered (and luckily survived) a major heart attack at 52, I’m a personal fan of knowing your numbers. But this approach simply wasn’t an effective way to motivate employees to thrive at work or in life. No one wants to be told that they need to improve their health to avoid financial penalties; that message absent an immersive cultural commitment to whole-person well-being breeds resentment and won’t help companies with long-term engagement and retention.

And these are much bigger, higher-value goals than lowering health costs.

Even when messaged positively, telling people the “right” thing to do and holding them accountable for doing it “or else” is fundamentally out of touch with how people think, work, and act  – and what they want. What exactly do employees want? Barry Schwartz and others have shown that people crave a sense of purpose at work, as well as community, belonging, value, autonomy, and mastery. The science of motivation is the relevant science for voluntary programs. Prioritizing these things has the potential to boost the bottom line while making employees happy, too. What’s more, creating caring and supportive companies – with high expectations – will help us take on the widespread isolation and suffering we face as a society.

“Wellness” Is Largely Irrelevant to the CEO

If you ask a Fortune 500 CEO about corporate priorities, you’ll generally hear a standard list that includes increasing revenue, profit, market share or stock price, serving customers well, globalization, technology disruption and maybe winning that Great Company award. Some might even go out on a limb and mention attracting great leaders, retaining top talent, or even creating a great culture as a way to achieve these other goals.

Where is employee well-being on the CEO list? Is it even in the top 20? Is it “a given” but not explicitly measured or managed? Wellness isn’t seen as a strategic part of culture creation that can increase engagement and ultimately lead to a company’s success. It’s a check-the-box, unimportant thing that ends up buried at the bottom of a long list of employee perks. For many companies, it’s program number 21 from one of the least influential departments: benefits.

I see this disconnect every day with our customers, both in underappreciated human capital functions and in the C-suite. And it’s not surprising given the way we’ve sometimes done these programs. But there’s no reason for this to happen anymore. Consider these findings from Limeade:
  • 88% of employees with higher well-being are engaged at work, compared with 50% of employees with lower well-being.
  • 98% of employees with both higher well-being and a higher perception that their company supports their well-being say they want to be working at the same company in one year.
  • 99% of employees with both high well-being and organizational support would recommend their employer as “a great place to work.”

It seems like focusing on an energetic and engaged workforce has potential, but…

Wellness Programs Fumbled the ROI Football

Wellness programs have historically been chartered with lowering healthcare costs – but proof of their results has been tough to nail down. One reason is that health costs fluctuate for reasons unrelated to health – like network design, unnecessary surgery, generic drug strategy, economic incentives for hospitals to do more procedures, and other “supply-side” issues. The second and third reasons are the ‘how our brains work’ and ‘irrelevant’ reasons outlined above. But there’s an important fourth reason, too: we have been looking in the wrong place.

Our research shows that employee engagement and turnover are much bigger drivers of a company’s financial success (or lack thereof) than medical costs. And well-being has a direct connection to these outcomes.

Taking a broader look at the results associated with an engaged and energized workforce should have the potential to convince a CEO or CHRO to take a more strategic approach to employee well-being. Having a model to help the C-suite see these connections is the key to breaking through the noise.

Doing Wellness Well-Being and Engagement Right

For something that’s supposed to be about helping people live their best lives, investing in corporate well-being and engagement is more controversial than it should be. Pavlovian approaches to wellness and recognition programs are shortsighted and doomed to either backfire or create entitlements. These problems are discouraging, but the good news is that well-being will find its footing with more strategic and scientific approaches. It’s high time to move beyond “wellness” to embrace whole-person, whole-company, whole-ecosystem well-being and engagement. A decade of our own academic and real-world research shows Limeade that this approach works.

I’ll take it a step further. Employee well-being and engagement are the most important things a CEO should care about.

Let’s tap into purpose, community, belonging, work well-being, emotional well-being, autonomy, mastery, energy, esprit de corps, and financial well-being. And yes, health. These are deep wells to drive innovation and nourish businesses in good times and in bad.

Let’s shift toward more intrinsic forms of motivation that lead people to want to improve their own well-being. This happens naturally when a program feels like something that’s done for them, not done to them. Instead of feeling like benefit number 21, they will sense that their company cares about them and is doing something with them to make the whole company better, not just to make insurance cheaper.

This approach is completely tethered to a company’s strategic priorities – and requires a more strategic commitment. What will it take? Limeade research reveals that this can’t just come from the top – it has to get local, too. Support from managers, tools and programs, and leaders are the top three elements of what Limeade calls “organizational support for well-being.” Other factors include connection to business strategy, the physical environment, and connection to internal teams, peers and social networks. And culture. With these elements as your tinder, light a well-being and engagement program that spreads like wildfire, simply because people love it.