Andre Spicer: Beware of taking wellness initiatives to extremes

Employers have traditionally relied on offering higher pay packets and better perks. But now, many potential recruits claim they would rather trade off a higher wage for a better work-life balance

Andre Spicer

As a result, organisations have started to rethink the way they reward people. Instead of relying on monetary incentives, they have started to try to offer more attractive workplaces.

This takes many forms, from nice working environments to flexible work arrangements and better facilities. But one trend that has caught on recently is trying to improve employee wellness.

The idea behind the corporate wellness movement is that organisations can help to improve their employees’ wellbeing at work. They try to do this by offering everything from cut-price gym memberships and weight-loss programmes to in-house mindfulness classes and healthy-eating initiatives.

Some employers that have taken this to an extreme have started to install treadmill desks and institute walking meetings. A number of US healthcare organisations have placed a ban on employing smokers. One organisation in Sweden even requires its employees to attend the gym twice a week if they are to receive their entire salary.

In small doses, corporate wellness programmes can do a little good. Employees appreciate free gym membership, and at times they find it helpful when employers offer health improvement initiatives. However, we should not think these wellness initiatives are going to be a magic bullet.

A study of wellness initiatives in US organisations suggests they tend to be costly, but have fairly limited impact on employee health. For instance, the small number of employees who participated in weight-loss programmes lost on average only 1kg. There is a danger that when they are taken to extremes, wellness initiatives can backfire. They can be experienced by employees as an unhelpful interference into their personal lives. In some cases, they can stoke a sense of anxiety and insecurity. At the extreme, they can mean employees spend more time working on their own personal wellness rather than their work tasks.   

Andre Spicer is professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School