Why Workplace Wellness?

Why Workplace Wellness?

When I first shifted my professional focus from digital health technology to evaluating the idea that there is inherent value for employers to provide services that contribute to the improvement of their employees’ well-being, the industry’s moniker for these services was generally referred to as “corporate wellness.” As this term got stigmatized by various narratives, like Mattke’s RAND study, the Safeway debacle, and the Honeywell ADA case, we have seen more people move away from the word “corporate” and transition to the word “workplace.” Although “corporation” is derived from the word corpus, which is a Latin word meaning a “body of people,” for many the modern day connotation of corporation no longer renders feelings of community and/or an amalgamated entity of shared values. On the contrary, for many “corporate” congers up the idea of monolithic leadership that directs the corporate entity to worry about the health of the organization first, and its employees second. The term “workplace wellness” personally suits me better because:

  • It tempers the rhetoric — and softens the distinction — between personal well-being and the wellness in which “big business” has been impelled to provide its employees.
  • It subtly, but effectively, points to the importance environment has on our well-being. Workplace is a “place,” corporate is a “thing.”
  • It is more inclusionary in the sense that corporate wellness seems to imply small to mid-size businesses are not part of the paradigm. This certainly is not true.

Outside of popular ideas I have adopted that are already consistent with other enthusiasts in workplace wellness (that are already well-represented throughout this website and my Twitter feed), here are three that I believe are somewhat unique.

  1. Although the phenomena of millennials’ growing influence in the workplace has been well-documented, in the media there is minimal coverage regarding how this trend will affect workplace wellness programs in the future. Since my doctoral work is grounded in organizational psychology, my vantage point might be askew, but nonetheless I believe that the change in psychographics over the next decade will play a major factor in successful (or unsuccessful) program design. The way millennials consume fitness is starkly different then it has been in previous decades. Furthermore, millennials are arguably more concerned with their own well-being (than Generation X) as well as advocates for corporate social responsibility (CSR).
  2. If you are a psychology nerd like me then you likely remember Dr. Harry Harlow’s work on dependency needs. Although I am in the opinion that Harlow’s work was unethical, it does provide evidence that compassionate organizations might have a higher resonance with people than those organizations that position employee benefits simply as economic perks. From the employee vantage point, mix in social psychology concepts like self-licensing and psychological reactance and it is easy to see that the way we are current designing workplace wellness product designs are flawed. That said, smart people will fix this, and we will improve.
  3. The changing dynamics of work (algorithmic vs. heuristic) and the conflict between the corporate imperative of “continual improvement” and the illusion of work-life balance in a connected world is being actively debated. There are new ideas and strong options guiding change in the area of employee well-being. Selfishly, I am exciting to be a part of it.

One last thing, it is important to note that the concept that businesses should be on the hook to take care of our health is fairly new. Most entrepreneurs do not start companies with the thought of going into business to provide people with health care coverage. Workplace wellness programs in the form we are now accustomed did not begin to really manifest until the mid-1970s. At the end of 1970s, there was an observed shift of financial responsibility — primarily influenced by governmental policy — where economic subsidies for healthcare went from largely a governmental burden and swung to largely being the burden of employers. Therefore the motivation of these programs has historically been cost containment, and rightfully so when you are honest about the financial burden poor employee health weighs on companies under this new paradigm. There is a blue ocean strategy out there — waiting to be found — to help employees improve their well-being and at the same time help businesses elevate the financial burden passed on to them by government. It is part of my personal mission to be a part of the solution, especially because I believe a key part of the resolution will involve, in part, digital health technology.