The July edition of the Wellness Barometer caused quite a stir by mentioning a recent peer-reviewed study stating that corporate wellness programs may not be as effective as previously thought. In response, several members of the GWI community pointed out that the study’s methodology was “inherently flawed” (published in the GWI Brief of August 29).

This prompted us to engage in some basic research on how corporate wellness programs are perceived by business executives in those large companies that invest in them. Our tentative, early findings (of no real scientific value—just informed food for thought!) are the following: No two programs are alike—some companies walk the wellbeing talk while others use corporate wellness programs as a clandestine method of increasing productivity.

Any meaningful employee wellness program should start with the obvious: implement reasonable working hours in a decent (i.e., nontoxic) environment. There is so much evidence in the academic literature proving that long hours and the intensity of work (defined as the level of effort supplied per unit of working time: tight deadlines and a relentless pace) are harmful to employees’ physical and mental health, that it’s hard to understand how expensive corporate wellness programs can coexist with a culture that encourages long working hours in a high-pressure environment.

Two examples we came across during our interviews epitomize this point: A US tech company with an expensive and all-encompassing corporate wellness program demands that their European business executives take part in regular conference calls late at night; while a large trading house that just put into place an elaborate corporate wellness program simultaneously imposes unrealistically high KPI (Key Performance Indicators) upon its employees. A sad irony: We came across a large global hospitality company whose chief wellness officer suffered from burnout while implementing a company-wide wellness program!

The bottom line: Corporate wellness programs can only be effective when countries (e.g., France with the right to disconnect) or companies (e.g., Volkswagen with no emails during the weekend or Bank of America Merrill Lynch trying to shorten long working hours) put into place coherent and supportive policies.

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