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How We Get Corporate Wellness Wrong

December is upon us, and with it come admonitions to enjoy a season filled with peace, joy, and reflection. In reality, it’s also a mad scramble to finish projects and see people before the arbitrary temporal landmark that is December 31st. Prevailing corporate wellness wisdom tells managers and HR to be especially mindful of employee stress during this period, and there is a tidal wave of articles aimed at individuals with tips to “survive the holidays”.

I have mixed feelings about wellness programs at work, and the holiday season reminds me why. Too often, these programs add things to employees already long list of tasks, rather than consider what might be removed or changed in the work environment.

Yoga classes, information sessions, online portals, social events and employee groups, brochures and posters, mindfulness and meditation app subscriptions, fitness memberships, and team activity challenges. None of these are bad, and many employees enjoy and appreciate them. However, the implementation of these activities in the absence of a critical examination of work practices and culture can render these efforts superficial and ineffective.

My view is that we can’t talk about wellness, encourage individuals to take on personal responsibility and emotional labour to resist and recover from stress, but fail to acknowledge the structural elements of our workplaces that contribute to it. In its most cynical application, the focus on “employee wellness” over actually making workplaces healthier asks employees to be complicit in their own exploitation. Rather than stopping the ride to let people get off, it asks them to grip tighter and oil the wheels.

The Wellness Syndrome

Some see the modern wellness obsession as a move to relocate accountability for healthy work conditions from organizations to workers. As hours get longer, demands increase, and work becomes less secure, why not use self-care to take your mind of it all, since you’re powerless to change it yourself? Ugh.

It may surprise many in HR to learn that wellness programs are not universally recognized as producing the positive outcomes we believe they do. They are, however, a convenient way for organizations to appear to care (often with great fanfare) without actually structurally changing anything, like adding additional headcount to their workforce, increasing paid time off, or limiting the priorities their employees are tasked with.

We frequently tout “building employee resilience” as a progressive strategy in the face of techno-stress and overwhelm, instead of examining a culture of excessive workloads and unrealistic expectations. The focus remains on the individual as what must be fixed, in order to come into line with the needs and expectations of the organization. All of which distracts from discussion of the work context in which employees are situated.

“Employee burnout is a common phenomenon, but it is one that companies tend to treat as a talent management or personal issue rather than a broader organizational challenge. That’s a mistake.” HBR, Employee Burnout is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person

To be clear, I don’t ascribe malice or deliberate deception to the individuals responsible for championing corporate wellness initiatives. Rather, I see this as a symptom of organizations grappling with the need to obtain ever more value from knowledge workers, while coming to terms (very, very slowly) with the realization that traditional command and control management approaches are failing to achieve that. At my most optimistic, I hope that appearing to be a friendly, benevolent workplace is a gateway drug to becoming a friendly, benevolent workplace.

What I worry about is that HR and corporate wellness proponents may not always be aware of the difference, and so may confuse their inputs (activity, time, resources) into wellness initiatives as a meaningful metric for how healthy their work environment actually is for workers.

I feel I must also point out that this focus on questionable and individual wellness is not only happening in organizations. The world many of us live in prescribes green juice, self-love quotes from social media influencers, unregulated supplements, and “rosé all day” as legitimate ways to cope with a chaotic and stressful world in which access to affordable healthcare is not assured. These solutions run the gamut from expensive snake oil to verifiably dangerous (but that’s a blog rant for another day).

Lest you think that I am an incurable cynic, I will say this: I know that many people in organizations truly care about the well-being of their employees, colleagues, and team members. Whether our organizations have an officially sanctioned wellness program or not, there are things we can do and advocate for that will help.

Respect Time

Consider your organization’s culture and practices, and your own managerial tendencies, with respect to time. Is it customary for senior people to overrun deadlines when poviding approvals or feedback, and then assume that more junior employees will make up for the delay by working faster to meet project deadlines? Do high performers, or team members least likely to say no get straddled with the majority of new projects until they become overloaded? Reexamine these practices through the lens of wellness.

In their book Time, Talent and Energy, Michael Mankins and Eric Garton note:

“…when employees aren’t as productive as they could be, it’s usually the organization, not its employees, that is to blame. The same is true for employee burnout. When we looked inside companies with high burnout rates, we saw three common culprits: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration.”

Don’t Talk About Resilience Unless You Also Talk About Rest

Does your organization suggest training or tactics for employees to increase their resilience? Are you coupling that with explicitly prioritizing rest? If your org culture or management style has (directly or implicitly) led employees to feel they should respond to e-mails after hours and on weekends, limit or reschedule vacation, and remain responsive at all times, then you should stop talking about resilience and get your house in order first.

Check out this article from Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan: Resilience is About How Your Recharge, Not How Your Endure

“The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again. This conclusion is based on biology. Homeostasis is a fundamental biological concept describing the ability of the brain to continuously restore and sustain well-being”

Seasonal Stress Management

Dr Matt Grawitch published an excellent article on the American Psychological Association Good Company blog this week offering a measured take on whether the holidays are, in fact, a much more stressful time than usual (which of course serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t ignore employee stress during the rest of the year). He also shares some very practical suggestions for employers to help employees cope:

  • Ensure the added time required to participate in work-related holiday festivities is accompanied by reduced expectations in other areas of work.

  • Offer greater workplace flexibility.

  • Allow employees to utilize some of the time off they have accrued

If your wellness program is more of a paternalistic PR campaign than a deep organizational commitment to introspective change, reconsider where your time and energy are going. You can’t work people into the ground but expect that layering on some resilience training is going to benefit them, or the organization, for long.

Read This Week:

Can a Man Truly Know Whether He Abused or Harassed Someone? Thomas Page McBee, Quartz at Work

It seems that the ongoing wave of sexual harassers and abusers being identified in the media is muddying, rather than clarifying the waters for many men. This article, authored by a trans man, offers a unique viewpoint on the degree to which supposedly masculine behaviours are socialized versus inherent.

“These unhealthy cultural notions of “what makes a man” are increasingly seen as the root of domestic violence and mass shootings, as well as shorter lifespans and poorer health outcomes for men. As tempting as it is to put as much distance as possible between ourselves (or the men in our lives) and the “bad men” who are predatory and violent, the guys following the “Pence rule” should give us pause. The implication—that men “can’t help” ourselves or, worse, that we must protect ourselves from vengefully lying women–shows the incredible power of masculinity as a narrative.”

Your Male Employees Are Running Scared – Tim Sackett

For a different but related male viewpoint, this article by Tim Sackett is…instructive. Sackett shares his experience from a recent recruiting conference:

“First, don’t think I’m looking for compassion for men. As a gender, we’ve dug our own hole pretty deep over the years. Let’s face it, many of us men can be super creepy at times, and unless you’re totally disconnected, we’ve been seeing this play out very publicly recently.”

“A negative outcome of this awareness is good dudes being scared to act normally because of what might be perceived as some pervy behavior.”

Sackett goes on to explain that he’d refrained from offering to walk a female conference goer back to her hotel in case the women thought he was “creepy”. He shares that he spoke to that woman the next day, as well as others in the group about this decision and the context for it.

By far the most interesting and insightful part of the post is the comments section, where female readers weighed in. I wish Sackett had thought to invite these viewpoints before holding forth, and made them the subject of his post and supposed introspection:

“For someone with your following to write a blog post like this is demoralizing. It would be great if you could encourage men to evaluate their true intentions and behave responsibly instead of putting forth this defensive narrative of “women have been traumatized at the hands of men, so maybe we should stop being helpful so we don’t risk feeling a little embarrassed if our kind gesture can’t be appreciated.”


“There is a broad range of options between deciding that you walk a lady to her hotel and not doing anything. Like asking everyone whether they feel comfortable going back to their respective hotels, and offering to tag along in case anyone doesn’t. Like asking her as part of the group whether she’s comfortable and whether it makes sense for another group to walk with her, or that you could do it if she’d like.

So first step: just ask if they share the concern.

Second step: If your concern is seriously her safety and not your role as The Women’s Protector, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re the one doing the accompanying, so don’t solely focus on that option and just offer it as one of several.”

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. A great post! I think the phrase “the implementation of … activities in the absence of a critical examination of work practices and culture can render … efforts superficial and ineffective” should be tattooed to every newly qualified HR person as it applies to pretty much everything we do in HR,

    I had a similar rant about wellness a couple of years ago:

    December 4, 2017
  2. Kristofer Fenlason #

    Jane — Nice post re: work life balance. I’ve worked both inside and outside (consultant for client organizations) for 30 years. In some ways management’s approaches seem to have progressed very little in that time. We’ve had Wellness offerings (or their precursors EAPs) for quite a while. But we also knew about those same “structural elements” that you articulate for quite a while too. Those elements got substantially less attention because they might cut into productivity, or … what passes for productivity.

    December 5, 2017
  3. Miriam #

    Always insightful and though provoking

    December 6, 2017

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