Workplace Wellness…On Second Thought

By Jamey Bednez, Director of Health and Productivity


Let’s face it, the traditional worksite wellness approach has arguably been an abject failure.  Predominately, stimulated of the search to control health care costs and improve overall employee health, employers have poured millions of dollars into doing little more than nagging their employees to eat their vegetables and take a walk. The outcomes have been abysmal.


Philosophically, I can’t argue against the premise of an employer offering initiatives to support the health and wellbeing of their employees.  But somewhere along the way, employees have become victim to a short sighted program that punishes rather than supports them.


In their simplest form, and I might add, most problematic, employer sponsored wellness programs traditionally consist of biometric screenings, health questionnaires, weight loss programs, lunch and learns, and physical activity programs.


The crux of the problem lies within the approach and recent reports are illustrating this point loud and clear.  Specifically, a recent Gallop report illustrated its findings and found that employees are valuing wellness perks at the bottom of the list when compared to all benefits.   When employers offer wellness programs that feel coercive, are non-voluntary, and have financial penalties for non-participation, employees express decreased levels of morale and engagement.  In a study by Willis Towers Watson 2017 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey it was reported the 73% of the respondents expressed that they prefer to manage their health and well-being on their own.


Further, when measuring the impact on improving employee health and or the cost of employer sponsored health care, the data is even more alarming.  Recent findings from the RAND Corp found that wellness programs produce no savings.  Additionally, the largest wellness-industry trade organization, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (“HERO”), published the Program Metric and Evaluation Guide (“HERO Guide” or “Guide”) and acknowledged that wellness programs do lose money.


So is it time to throw wellness out with the bath water?  If workplace wellness programs don’t work, and employees are opposing employer support with their well-being, isn’t this justification to cease wellness initiatives? Or are there more effective ways to support employee wellbeing?


We don’t have to rip wellness out of the playbook just yet!  In those same surveys, employees agree that employers have a role to play in encouraging them to live healthier lifestyles.   What is more important to recognize is that employees are asking for support in their decisions regarding health and well-being, rather than programs that force them to make those decisions.  Therefore, employers must recognize the nuances of doing wellness “for” employees versus “to” them.


When employers offer wellness “for” employees, they create opportunities to voluntarily engage in programs and services that enable them to make healthier lifestyle choices.  A wellness program done “for” employees provides resources to increase awareness around preventive care and work-life balance.  A wellness program done “for” employees might offer free health coaching services that work with employees to intrinsically motivate positive behavior change.  Wellness done “for” employees focuses on valuing each employee’s purpose and aligning that with the company vision and mission.  Wellness done “for” employees offers education and access to wellness services they might not have elsewhere.


Conversely, wellness programs that are offered “to” employee’s forces participation in screenings, questionnaires, and outcome based biomedical risk factors through financial penalties tied to health care premiums.  Wellness done “to” employees requires the disclosure of private health information through health risk assessments. Wellness done “to” employees require participation in health fairs and biometric screenings that don’t align with the United States Preventive Task Force Guidelines.  Wellness programming done “to” employees creates a culture that devalues employees as humans and treats them more like machines.


In my opinion, traditional workplace wellness programs should be locked in the Smithsonian. It’s time for employers to look through a new lens.  Yes, employees have reported valuing employer sponsored walking competitions, fitness classes, lunch and learns, and the like.  However, the growing concern around the methodology in which these programs are being offered is gaining traction. Organizational and employee wellbeing programs that focus on supporting employees to bring their best selves to work provide far greater benefit. Employees that feel valued, have work environments that are flexible, and provide tools to cope with living in an ever-changing dynamic world, are more engaged and live healthier happier lives.



O’Boyle, Ed, and Annamarie Mann. “American Workplace Changing at a Dizzying Pace.”, 15 Feb. 2017,


“Program Measurement & Evaluation Guide: Core Metrics for Employee Health Management.” Health Enhancement Research Organization and Population Health Alliance, 2015,
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