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Why Don't Wellness Programs Deliver on Their Promises?

By Emily Pines, Managing Director, Content Development, The Energy Project

Emily Pines, Managing Director, Content Development, The Energy Project

Nine out of ten companies now provide their employees with some sort of wellness benefits, and in the last year alone, nearly 25 percent of companies have increased their offerings. Meanwhile, healthcare costs keep on rising, employee engagement levels have barely budged, and there is little evidence that employees are healthier, or happier at work.

So why are people still struggling with exhaustion, weight gain, disengagement, and stress despite having access to nap rooms, nutrition classes, and even on-site massage? The problem is that companies are focusing on the symptoms, but overlooking the invisible, internal barrier that stands in the way of solving these problems. They aren’t addressing mindset.

"The first and most powerful step toward shifting organizational mindsets is having senior leaders begin to explore their own mindsets and behaviors, and how they line up with the cultural messaging."              

At the individual level, we instinctively resist change – especially the kind that entails any degree of discomfort. Change feels dangerous, and we are wired, for our survival, to seek safety. Organizations, meanwhile, have a collective mindset – their culture – which is just as resistant to change, for much the same reasons.

Mindset is a largely unacknowledged conspiracy that protects the status quo, even when organizations and employees want to operate differently. In the case of wellness offerings, the fundamental issue is that employees need to take time off from work in order to take advantage of them. This idea runs counter to cultural norms in most organizations, and to our own deeply-held beliefs about how to be successful at work.

Employees have access to state-of-the-art gyms, but get frantic emails from their boss if they try to use them during work hours. Despite available resources and messaging about the importance of wellbeing in the workplace, the expectation persists in most companies that more committed employees work longer and more continuous hours.

The truth is that our culture equates rest and renewal with laziness and apathy, qualities that we collectively find repulsive and intolerable. We equate them with failing and low social status, so we’re unable to see or accept them in ourselves. While disowning the parts of us that are lazy or apathetic might sound appealing, it also means we lose access to the gold hidden beneath them – the part of us that is able to truly, fully, relax and disconnect. We’re incapable of taking the time we need to rest, renew, and care for our personal well-being, even when research shows it will ultimately allow us to perform better and more sustainably. Our mindset – and our company cultures – stand as roadblocks.

An organization that truly wants employees to take advantage of wellness programs needs to consciously address this contradiction, and make a clear, explicit connection between employees’ well-being and their ability to perform sustainably at the highest levels.

The first and most powerful step toward shifting organizational mindsets is having senior leaders begin to explore their own mindsets and behaviors, and how they line up with the cultural messaging. To get started, they should experiment with small shifts in behavior and examine the impact, so that they experience the value of addressing their own well-being. Individual employees –and the organization as a whole – will follow when it’s clear the culture views wellness not as a sign of apathy or laziness, but as a critical component of high performance.

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