Unbusinessy - title graphic 

Cartoon: woman in beach interrupted by call from office regarding wellness pogramme. 

Corporate Wellness Programmes Are Sick

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

The latest business fad is all about wellness. Like so many business fads, it is an absurd one. Here's why.

Imagine: it's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and you are out enjoying the woods or a beach or a hike or whatever it is you enjoy doing in your spare time. You are with your family or a friend, laughing, talking and just having a great time when you are disturbed by the ring tone on your phone. You check the number and see it's your boss. You sigh, as does your companion − this has happened all too often in the past.

"Hello," you say, attempting to stifle your irritation at an afternoon almost certainly spoiled.

"Hello," says the boss without a word of apology for disturbing yet another Sunday, "I'm worried about the stress levels of our employees and think we need to do something. You know employee wellness has always been very important to me."

Yeah, you think, your boss has only become aware of stress problems at work since he went to a wellness conference in Cannes last month. You try to think of a diplomatic way to suggest that maybe not calling employees at all hours and especially during weekends might be one way to reduce stress, but your boss interrupts.

"I think we should hire a mindfulness guru to run a workshop on mindfulness. I saw a great presentation about it in Cannes," your boss says with sufficient enthusiasm for the both of you, which is a good thing because you have none to contribute to the conversation.

"Look into it and report back to me first thing Monday," your boss continues and then rings off before you can reply.

You feel your stress levels rising as you realise your day out has been spoiled and you will need to go home early in order to research wellness gurus. You wish you could say, "no" to your boss. But after the lay-offs last year, you do not dare.

Wellness initiatives are like bullies hugging you after beating you up

Wellness is the latest business fad, with bosses tripping over each other to talk about how important employee health and well-being is to them. Companies offer mindfulness workshops, stress management seminars, yoga classes, weight loss programmes and more − provided they do not take up too much work time. After all, you've got dozens of voicemails, twice as many emails and three times as many reports to deal with today, not to mention the presentation for the client meeting this evening (did you remember to get a sitter to fetch the kids from school?).

What business leaders are either forgetting or ignoring completely is that they are largely responsible for their employees' unwellness. They are working employees half to death at the office, then expecting them to take phone calls and respond to emails when they are out of the office. And any employee who decides not to take phone calls or read mail out of the office can have the pleasure of worrying about risking her job security in exchange for unwind time at the weekend.

Overwork is a leading cause of unwellness

Even the press seems to forget that overwork is a leading cause of unwellness. A recent Fortune magazine article on wellness initiatives, offers several suggestions for effective employee wellness initiatives but, like many such articles, completely fails to suggest things like reducing workload, not nagging employees during weekends and making employees feel they are valued at work, all of which might actually do more to make employees feel well than telling them they are overweight, sending them to seminars so they can worry about the work they will have to make up afterwards or teaching them mindfulness.

Of course, that's probably because hiring a mindfulness guru is less risky and seems cheaper than reducing workload across the workforce. As a result, this wellness trend will probably continue, as will the overworking employees trend.

The alternative

Of course, there is an alternative approach that business leaders could implement: reduce workload, prohibit work communication outside of office hours (with the exception of life or death emergencies), encourage employees to take all their holiday time (with mobile devices switched off)  and make employees feel valued. On the surface, this may seem more costly than shaming overweight employees to eat less and walk more. But, being less stressed, having time to switch off after work and having a life outside of work actually make for a better, more energised and more creative employee − in other words, a well employee.

Doubt it? Well, Microsoft Japan -- not a company or culture known for going easy in working hours -- recently experimented with a four day working week and do you know what they found? They found that productivity jumped by 40%. So, maybe reducing working hours won't cost you anything. It may actually improve efficiency and make for a happier workforce.

You might even become a hero to your employees, their families and the local community. Now, that sounds rather nicer than working your employees to death, don't you think?


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