- Recent research has dampened the theory that workplace wellness programs work.
- Why? In many cases these programs act as a band-aid, and simply aren’t equipped to deal with the root cause of poor workplace wellbeing.
- Toxic work cultures are a leading source of stress for many employees. For wellness programs to work, companies need to first address their culture.
Workplace wellness is a multi-billion-dollar industry.
So why isn’t it working?
Not for the first time, research has dampened the theory that workplace wellness programs positively impact employee health.
The results of a three-year study, released in June 2021 by Zirui Song at Harvard University and Katherine Baicker at the University of Chicago, revealed no significant difference in health outcomes or retention between employees who participated in the program and those who didn’t.
This isn’t the first study to refute the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs.
This particular report built on a previous study from 2019 that yielded similar results, while another study from 2018 also questioned the “limited evidence” available to support claims that workplace wellness programs help to increase productivity and improve wellbeing.
And yet, other studies claim that wellness programs do work, and are invaluable in supporting employees with both their physical and mental health.
What’s going on?
One theory is that wellness programs are only being utilised by some employees but not all, which minimizes their effectiveness.
This is partly because companies aren’t doing enough to communicate the available programs to their employees.
However, it goes deeper than that.
A wellness program only goes so far. To make it work, you first need to understand why it is needed in the first place. In many cases these programs act as a band-aid, and simply aren’t equipped to deal with the root cause of poor workplace wellbeing.
Namely, a toxic work culture.
Toxic workplaces can take many forms, but they share a common thread among employees: negativity.
“The problem with many workplace wellbeing programmes is that they don’t tackle the root cause of most workplace stress — toxic company culture,” says Dr Zoe Watson, founder of Wellgood Wellbeing.
“If your company doesn’t create a culture in which it is genuinely acceptable to talk about your mental health struggles without any repercussions, then you will never have happy, healthy employees.”
A toxic culture leads to wellness problems such as stress, anxiety, and burnout. But offering wellness solutions in return isn’t a complete solution. Instead, companies need to address and root out the problems from the top down – or from the inside out.
In a recent podcast with Allwork.Space, Brett Putter, founder and CEO of CultureGene and author of ‘Own Your Culture’, explained some of the hallmarks of toxic culture and why it could drive down workplace wellness.
“An example of a strong culture is where your values, your mission and vision are understood. You can see the culture in action; the way the company functions accelerates the business.”
However, Putter notes that a dysfunctional culture is typically reflected in “a lot of politics in your business”, which slows the business down and hampers its success. “Nobody knows the values of the business, nobody cares for them. There is a lot of backbiting and backstabbing and politics going on in the organization. This is what you really want to avoid.”
Given the amount of time we spend in these environments, it’s easy to see how this type of culture could lead to stress, anxiety, and poor mental health.
Aditya Jain is an associate professor in human resource management at Nottingham University Business School, who has studied stress, wellbeing and mental health in the workplace.
According to Jain: “A toxic work culture is one where workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards. They may have little or no organisational support, poor interpersonal relationships, high workload, lack of autonomy, poor rewards and a lack of job security.”
The consequences of such work cultures are wide-ranging. Jain notes that they may include:
- Individual physical health impacts, like heart disease or musculoskeletal disorders
- Poor mental health and burnout
- Organisational fallout like reduced attendance, engagement, productivity and innovation.
So before investing in gym passes, yoga sessions, meditation rooms and healthy meals, take a closer look at your company culture.
As Putter noted, a strong and healthy company culture is built on a foundation of shared values, which become the DNA of a company. The fundamental step in order to create a positive culture is to define your company values, and embed these into the business.
These shared values drive the behaviour of the individuals that make up your team. They should be embraced by the business leaders and embedded into the organisation. At every opportunity, these values should be resurfaced to ensure they are effectively shared and ‘lived’ by the team.
Management is crucial here. Managers have the ability to embrace and permeate these values throughout the team; equally, the wrong choice of manager can have the opposite effect.
“…of all the places you go each day, your workplace may have the greatest influence on your well-being. And the person who can best help you achieve results is someone you probably least expect: your manager”Gallup
All things said, even a company that boasts the most positive and healthiest of company cultures can still, and indeed should, provide workplace wellness initiatives.
As Zirui Song noted, following the publication of the three-year workplace wellness study, there is still much to be learned about workplace wellness and its effectiveness.
“As we grow to understand how best to encourage healthy behavior, it may be that workplace wellness programs will play an important role in improving health and lowering the cost of health care,” Song said.
Offering workplace wellness programs is a positive step for any company to take. At the very least, it demonstrates that the employer cares for its people and intends to take positive steps to fulfil their needs and provide a comfortable and healthy workplace, which is after all, a fundamental human need. The difference is, workplace wellness programs should not be used to cover up deeper issues – rather, they should complement an organisation, and act as a force for good to strengthen and drive the company’s shared values toward a more positive, happier, and healthier culture.