What Organizations Get Wrong About Employee Wellness

When it comes to employee wellness, what began as a perk for companies with money to burn is now commonplace in America. Organizations now so readily dole out benefits such as gym memberships, weight loss programs, and nutrition education that employees have come to expect these things from day one.

I wish I could say this turn to wellness is rooted in companies’ concern for their employees’ wellbeing, but the bottom-line is a significant driver here. Oodles of research have shown that healthier employers perform at a higher level. Moreover, we’ve learned over the years that wellness programs attract talented workers, cut back absenteeism, improve morale, reduce turnover, and lower healthcare costs for the organization.

With those kinds of benefits, companies would be crazy not to provide ways for their employees to be as healthy and productive as they can possibly be.

But, here’s the catch.

Employee wellness is about more than what can be measured in an exam room. It’s about an employee’s wellness as a whole human being — individually and corporately.

  • A strong abdominal core is useless when you’re under psychological attack from a manipulative and domineering supervisor.
  • A trim waistline is more a curse than a blessing when you’re continuously being objectified and harassed with little to no accountability for the offenders.
  • An excellent nutrition program is nothing more than a teasing insult when pay disparity makes it difficult for you to afford the items laid out in your meal plan.

There is more to wellness than what the perks I mentioned above can offer. So long as companies fail to notice that, their employees will never be as well as they can truly be.

We Are Not Machines

A friend recently told me about a well-known phenomenon in Japan called karoshi, which means death by work. Some activists claim that, each year, upwards of 10,000 Japanese die suddenly or take their own lives on account of rampant overwork.

Part of the problem is rooted in cultural expectation. Working 70+ hours a week is still largely regarded as a virtue in Japan. If you’re a junior employee, it’s expected that you’ll work yourself to the bone. To the bosses, you might as well be a productivity machine.

Therein lies the problem, and it’s not at all limited to Japan.

Employee wellness programs are often constructed around a narrow view of what it means to be a healthy and productive human being. Eat right, exercise, sleep 8 hours a night, take your shots, ditch the tobacco, and you’ll be primed to do your best work.

But that’s just not how human beings work.

Deepening the Well

Our bodies matter, and we need to take good care of them if we’re going to live full and productive lives. But our physical wellbeing is only one facet of human flourishing.

Here are several more to consider:

  • Psychological — To be psychologically well is to be integrated with respect to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and interpersonal relationships. You will never feel well if your life is coming apart at the seams.
  • Social — We are relational beings. In fact, neuroscience shows that our brains develop in direct response to the people around us. Leave it to brain scientists to tell us what we already knew: healthy relationships make for healthy minds.
  • Emotional — Overall wellness depends on our emotional intelligence — knowing what we’re feeling and why, as well as relating well to the emotions of others. Cardiac health is great, but we’ll never feel well if our figural hearts aren’t in tune.
  • Financial — When it comes to finances, most companies stop at compensation. But it’s important to recognize that employees who are financially stressed (student loans, medical bills, elder care for parents, etc.) will struggle to perform.
  • Spiritual — However you understand it, there is more to life than what can be seen under a microscope. Without peace with God, the universe, or whatever, we struggle to find meaning, purpose, and holistic wellness in our lives.

Creating Space for Cultural Wellness

The dimensions I mentioned above mostly focus on the individual. They can each be targeted by a custom-tailored wellness program. What no program can touch, however, is the corporate dimension of human flourishing, or what I call cultural wellness.

Instead of asking how any one employee is doing, cultural wellness asks how we’re doing because it understands that individual and corporate flourishing go hand in hand.

Without one, we can’t have the other.

Smart leaders will focus not just on individual employee wellness with all its perks and privileges (ergonomic keyboards, posh employee lounges, fancy snacks, etc.). They’ll take a broader view, creating cultures in which everyone can flourish.

These cultures of holistic wellness and flourishing will be marked by…

  • Psychological Safety — Microaggressive and exclusionary behavior will not be tolerated.
  • A Spirit of Inclusion — Corporate conformity will be treated as a disease to be eradicated rather than promoted.
  • Real Hope for Advancement — Leaders will fight against discrimination and establish systems of advancement based on merit alone.
  • Pervasive Kindness — Employees will lead with courage, speak with candor, and treat their fellow workers with civility and respect.

Conclusion: Both/And

Please don’t misread me. Physical wellness is vitally important. I’ve got nothing against getting your employees into the gym and out of the freezer section at CTown.

But there’s more to wellness than all that. A toxic workplace will poison even the healthiest of individuals. A culturally unwell organization will maximize stress, minimize performance, and pulverize the people who go work for it.

So, by all means, send your employees to yoga and help them kick their nicotine habit. But don’t stop there. We are not machines. If you want your people to flourish, provide for every dimension of their wellness. In today’s labor market, you’d be crazy not to.

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Natasha Bowman

Natasha Bowman

Natasha Bowman is recognized as a Top 30 Global Guru for Management, author and President of leadership development consulting firm Performance ReNEW.