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Why Workplace Wellness Programs Aren’t Working

To their credit, wellness programs are a great idea. But when they only cover areas like diet and exercise, they miss domains that matter just as much to people's well-being.

You exercise every day. You eat healthy foods, even when ice cream calls. You center yourself through meditation or prayer.

But no matter how well you take care of yourself — and model that for your peers — you’re not a walking wellness program. You need a structured program that helps your colleagues take care of themselves.

The trouble is that research suggests most workplace wellness programs are a waste of money. In the first large-scale, peer-reviewed study of its kind, social scientists at Harvard University and the University of Chicago found no impact on health metrics, employer healthcare spending, or absenteeism. Although employees at the BJ’s Wholesale Club stores they studied self-reported healthier behaviors, the data told a different story.

The problem? Wellness programs focus largely on physical health. Unless they take the whole person into account, they aren’t likely to make a difference in your team’s well-being.

Here are the areas most programs are missing when it comes to cultivating true wellness:

1. Emotional

Mental health isn’t something most employers like to talk about. If they bring it up at all, it’s often to tell workers to talk to their doctors. 

Fortunately, tides are shifting. Mental health experts are finding that lifestyle approaches work just as well for ADHD treatment, if not better, than pharmaceutical drugs. Not only are they less expensive, but they also don’t require a prescription from a medical professional — meaning they’re easily built into workplace wellness initiatives.

Where should you start? Team sports, for one, are proven to make a dent in symptoms of disorders ranging from depression to ADHD. Plus, exercise has no harmful side effects. Get a team gym membership, put together an after-work sports team, and encourage after-lunch activities. Also, consider creating a space for meditation, which is an “anywhere, anytime” guard against stress.

2. Professional

Especially for young employees, burnout has become an epidemic. Without direction and challenge, otherwise healthy workers may become depressed or upset. Be compassionate: Talk through the signs you see, and ask workers how you can help solve them.

Executive roles may be the end path for some workers, but not everyone is interested in leadership. Enlist an outside career planner to meet with your team. No matter how much managers care, their job isn’t to be a career coach. Managers have their own interests when it comes to employees’ futures, and workers may not feel confident in opening up to their boss.

3. Spiritual

Spirituality is something everyone has to discover for themselves, of course, but that doesn’t mean employers can’t help. Why would they? Think about all the ways spirituality impacts mental and physical well-being: Spirituality reduces health risks ranging from anxiety to high blood pressure. Spiritual people are generally more motivated and more active in their communities.

Given how personal spirituality is, a one-size-fits-all policy simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, make clear in your employee manual that your team can take breaks for grief, prayer, meditation, and more. There’s no reason to stop workers from holding worship sessions, assuming they don’t get in the way of work. 

4. Monetary

You don’t need to check your employees’ bank accounts, but do realize financial health is essential to their well-being. According to PwC, financial needs create more stress than all other categories combined. For years, stress has been recognized as a risk factor for depression, vascular disease, cancer, and more. 

But other than paying people more, what can companies do to reduce workers’ financial burden? Develop a financial literacy initiative that spans debt, savings, investments, and retirement planning. With the right budgeting tools, workers can start to build savings over time.

Another smart strategy is low- or no-interest employee loans. Otherwise, workers may turn to high-interest lenders to cover gaps. If a worker’s refrigerator dies after a large vacation expense, for example, he or she has to find those funds somewhere.

To their credit, wellness programs are a great idea. Healthy people are happier, not to mention more productive and less expensive to employ. But when their only coverage areas are diet and exercise, they miss domains that matter just as much to overall health. Don’t just be an example of health to your employees: Develop a wellness program that lets them set their own.

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