Health

The $6.8 billion wellness industry is in need of a checkup, some experts say

CEOs’ enthusiasm for workplace wellness programs may need tempering and clear boundaries, according to some workplace experts.
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· 5 min read

Henry Albrecht, chief executive officer of wellness platform Limeade, knows it can be difficult for some employees to participate in workplace-sponsored health programs.

Albrecht told HR Brew that on Limeade, there is no shortage of people in your corner, encouraging you to give a wellness plan a go—like the company’s chief product and technology officer, Larry Colagiovanni, who had playfully goaded Albrecht into maintaining his place on the company’s walking-challenge leaderboard, which shows participants how many steps they’ve taken and where they stand relative to their colleagues-turned-competitors.

“I’m getting a nudge from a human being saying, ‘I’m gaining on you, but we’re in this together, and it’s a fun experience,’” Albrecht said during the phone interview.

For some workplace wellness evangelists who have championed the $6.8 billion corporate wellness industry, the pressure to participate can be in good faith. Though SHRM’s Employee Benefits Survey for 2020 suggests that workplace wellness benefits dipped in popularity during the pandemic, in part because Covid-related shut-downs made it difficult to incentivize things like gym memberships, SHRM previously extolled the benefits of such programs pre-pandemic, arguing that a “well-executed wellness program can reduce health care costs, augment productivity, and increase employee retention.”

Myke Murray, the general manager of Exos, told HR Brew, “a healthy employee is somebody that doesn’t miss work as often.”

For other workplace experts, executives’ enthusiasm for wellness at work may need tempering. Some say that while wellness is a laudable goal, a sustainable wellness culture should be on employees’ terms, and the best programs are ones with clear boundaries.

In your face

Albrecht passionately discussed how Limeade clients can utilize employees to promote the wellness programs—everyone from managers to employee resource group organizers to coworkers in an employee’s social network can help spread the word to entice people to participate.

“We’re trying to surround you with enough care, and enough role models to say, ‘85 other people in my department [are] doing this, maybe it’s not so bad after all,’” Albrecht said.

When disability rights advocate Emily Ladau heard about Limeade’s platform, she told HR Brew that she loves Albrecht’s enthusiasm for wellness but cautioned that companies should be mindful that wellness isn’t one-size-fits-all.

“To be truly inclusive is to recognize that, sometimes, you just can’t force this on people,” Ladau said.

Alissa Rumsey, dietitian and author of Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life, made a similar observation, telling HR Brew by email that some employees may opt out of wellness plans, like diet challenges, nutrition classes, or step challenges, in order to preserve their health.

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“Challenges like these assume that the employees will benefit, whereas for many people, these programs may actually make their health worse,” Rumsey explained. “For example, if a person has a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating, these kinds of challenges may send them back into their disordered behaviors.”

What’s better than “wellness”?

Ladau recommended that one way to avoid being unintentionally exclusive is by ensuring that employers have “strong diverse representation” when planning initiatives. Once events are planned, Ladau said, it’s important to make sure that employees know that participation isn’t tied to employees’ value in the community.

“Your wellness challenge [could be] asking [employees] to conform to some kind of standard that they may not meet, and so immediately, it no longer becomes wellness, but it can actually become really harmful,” Ladau said. She noted the difference between offering yoga versus adapted yoga or a virtual 5k compared with a 5k where employees can choose to “walk and roll” as examples of potentially exclusionary events and potentially inclusive versions with proper forethought.

“Make sure you let people know that if you do not participate or cannot participate, and that’s your choice, that does not mean that you don’t belong to the community,” Ladau cautioned.

Rumsey believes that a lack of inclusivity in wellness programs can lead to a perception of failure. “Challenges like these end up putting the focus on external numbers rather than how the person feels or what their body needs,” Rumsey said over email. “This can lead to feelings of failure or shame for not meeting the arbitrary number goal, like the number of steps in a day, and can lead to people comparing themselves to others rather than focusing on their own health.”

To show employees that employers care, and avoid some of the negative feelings associated with workplace wellness programs, Albrecht said inclusion and tone are important. Albrecht recommends that employee wellness programs be “the thing connecting employee resources, or connecting people socially for volunteering events that have nothing to do with how much they weigh, or how much they drink.”

“Those are small, but really powerful ways to say, ‘This is not just about us wanting you to fix yourself—this is about that we care about you,” Albrecht said.—SV

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